Lymphatic Filariasis - What Is It and What Can Be Done About It?
The lymph system is a major component of the human body's immune system. It is made up of organs, lymph ducts, lymph vessels, and lymph nodes that transport lymph from tissues to the bloodstream. The lymph system helps to fight infections and maintain the body's fluid balance, which is why lymphatic filariasis can be such a debilitating ailment.
Lymphatic filariasis is a disease caused by microscopic, thread-like parasites that live in the lymph system. Although these worms aren't in the United States, lymphatic filariasis affects more than 120 million people in 80 countries throughout South America, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Western Pacific. The parasite is passed from person to person via mosquito bites. This means that when a mosquito bites someone infected with lymphatic filariasis, microscopic worms will travel into the mosquito and infect it. When that mosquito then feeds on another person, it transfers the worms into that human's lymph vessels. Once inside the lymph vessels, the worms will grow into adults, mate, and release millions of microscopic worms into the bloodstream. Adult worms can live for up to seven years.
You are at risk of becoming infected with this disease if you live in a tropical or sub-tropical location outside the US, and mosquitoes have repeatedly bitten you for several months to several years. Tourists who have visited for a short period are unlikely to contract lymphatic filariasis, although it is possible.
While lymphatic filariasis causes great damage to the lymph system, many people with the disease will not have any clinical symptoms. Still, some may develop lymphedema, which causes swelling and fluid to collect in the legs, arms, breasts, and genitals. Some may have more bacterial infections in the skin since the swelling hinders the body's ability to fight off germs and infections. This can lead to a thickening of the skin called elephantiasis.
If you suspect you have lymphatic filariasis, consult your physician immediately. Your doctor will typically conduct a microscopic examination to identify any microfilariae in your system. Blood tests are another alternative, since some ailments may not develop for several years after the infection. In most cases, a year-long treatment is required to kill the microscopic worms and avoid contaminating others. The treatment, however, does not eliminate all of the adult worms.
To help prevent a future infection, avoid mosquito bites, which normally occur between dusk and dawn. Also, wear long sleeves and pants, and use a powerful repellant.