Guinea Worm Treatment in Antiquity
Scholars believe that one of the earliest written prescriptions for treatment of this parasite is found in the Papyrus Ebers, an ancient Egyptian medical document dated to about 1500 BCE. In Parasites and Parasitic Infections in Early Medicine and Science, Hoeppli provides a translation by B. Ebbell: “Thou shalt perform an operation for it, the same being split with a... knife and seized with a... -instrument (forceps); that which is in its interior is seized with a forceps, and then thou shalt remove it... That which is like the head is seized...”
This describes surgical removal: an incision to expose the worm, then extraction with forceps. Without pain medication, this would be exquisite torture, but the approach is still sometimes used. A variation, described by A. Hooton in 1927 (Hoeppli), removed the worm from the incision with suction, using the mouth and a funnel. A third quasi-surgical approach sounds horrific and seems unlikely to have worked: cauterization of the inflammation in several places with a hot iron. The worm was said to emerge through one of the wounds thus created.
More common than surgery, and probably older, is the technique of slowly pulling the worm out through the original lesion. There are several variations of this approach as well.
Removing the Guinea Worm Without Surgery
To remove Dracunculus medinensis, you can tie a thread around the end of the worm so that it cannot withdraw back into the skin, and then attach a lead weight to create a steady pull to draw it out. The weight of the lead is presumably critical because, in the words of Hoeppli, “The symptoms of Guinea worm infection were described by numerous authors all of whom agreed that in no circumstances should the worm be broken, as, generally speaking, a severe reaction would follow.”
One can imagine that a Guinea worm nearly a yard long would be increasingly cumbersome as more and more was extracted. A second method addresses this problem: fasten the end of the worm to a small stick, like a matchstick, and slowly draw the worm out – over a period of days or weeks - by turning the stick, thus winding the worm around it like a spool.
Slow and careful extraction of the worm remains the typical method for treating Guinea worm disease to this day.
Herbal Remedies for Guinea Worm
|An ancient remedy for Guinea worm involved making|
a paste from the leaves of the castor bean plant.
Castor oil and ricin are made from the beans of the
same plant. Image by Rickjpelleg; CC BY-SA 2.5
Castor bean: "Powder 1 oz. dried castor oil leaves, add water until a daughy mass is obtained. Place this as a poultice on the wound... night and morning."
Ricinus communis, native to Africa, is perhaps best known for castor oil and the poison ricin, both made from the beans. Today, the plant is grown all over the world. Siqqiqui and colleagues mention the use of leaf poultices for boils and swellings, and for removing the Guinea worm. They also describe the use of various parts of the plant to treat chest diseases such as asthma and bronchitis, to relieve gas, rheumatism, back problems, and digestive issues, and to make hair grow. While much research into the antihelminthic (anti-worm) properties of R. communis has investigated its usefulness only in animals, there is evidence that it is toxic to filarial worms of humans. Thus, it may be somewhat effective against D. medinensis as well.
Tundub tree: "A pulp made from the freshly cut ends of branches... may be applied to the inflamed area."
The tundub tree (Capparis aphylla, also known as C. decidua or desert broom) is an evergreen but mostly leafless shrub, growing in the same places that Guinea worm has flourished over the centuries -
|Applying a paste made from the cut ends of tundub|
tree stems might ease your Guinea worm lesion. It
might also fend off infection.
D. Brandis, Illustrations of the Forest Flora of
North-West and Central India PD-1996
This ancient remedy may have had some effect. Research has shown that the pulp has antihelminthic, as well as antibacterial and antifungal properties. It may be helpful in avoiding the secondary infections that so often accompany Guinea worm infection. Recently, scientists found that an extract of C. aphylla causes infertility in male rats, suggesting contraceptive properties.
Asafoetida: "Three drachms [3/8 oz] of powdered [asafoetida] should be mixed in... milk and drunk every morning..."
Ferula asafoetida) is a gum resin prepared from the root and rhizome of a flowering herbaceous plant. It is commonly used as a spice in Middle Eastern and Southern Asian cuisine, and has been used as an herbal medicine for various ailments for centuries. It is reputed to be an antispasmodic, expectorant, diuretic, and even an aphrodisiac. A number of cultures have used it to expel worms. Interestingly, Mahendra and Bisht write that the people of India also eat the gum to prevent guinea worm infection, a rare preventative approach.
|Asafoetida is commonly known as a spice in Southern Asian cooking,|
but it's been used medicinally for generations. Those afflicted with
Guinea worm have consumed it to avoid the worm, and to treat infection.
Image by Iustinus CC BY-SA 3.0
No Drugs for Guinea Worm
The fact that no drug has been found to vanquish the Guinea worm in the human host might be surprising, but such a cure might be worse than the disease anyway. Writing in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization Supplement, R. Muller wonders “whether direct antiparasitic activity against such a large amount of foreign protein is desirable.” “...metrifonate has some action against many helminths..." Muller explains, "and was the only substance shown to be effective against guinea worms in infected rhesus monkeys. ...unfortunately, the monkey also died with symptoms indicative of anaphylactic shock” ("Guinea Worm Disease: Epidemiology, Control and Treatment," 1979).
Having a large worm decomposing in the tissues could lead to serious secondary problems in people as well. Fortunately, it's likely this will soon be of only academic interest. The Guinea Worm Disease Eradication program spearheaded by the Carter Center in the United States looks set to succeed. There were only twenty-five cases reported, worldwide, in 2016. For comparison, in 1986 there were an estimated 3.5 million cases.
The Rise and Fall of the Guinea Worm
Guinea Worm Eradication
Atlas of Pediatrics in the Tropics and Resource-Limited Settings. "Dracunculiasis." (n.d.) Accessed May 28, 2013
Hoeppli, R. Parasites and Parasitic Infections in Early Medicine and Science. (1959). University of Malaya Press
Iranshahy, Milad, and Iranshahi, Mehrdad. "Traditional Uses, Phytochemistry, and Pharmacology of Asafoetida (Ferula assa-foetida oleo-gum-resin) – A Review." (2011). Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 134:1.
Nisha, Mathew; Kalyanasundaram, M et al. "In Vitro Screening of Medicinal Plant Extracts for Macrofilaricidal Activity." (2007). Parasitology Research. 100:3.
Mahendra, Poonam, and Bisht, Shradha. "Ferula asafoetida: Traditional Uses and Pharmacological Activity." (2012). Pharmacognosy Review. 6:12.
Mishra, S. N., Tomar, P. C. et al. "Medicinal and Food Value of Capparis – a Harsh Terrain Plant." (2007). Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge. 6:1.
Muller, R. "Guinea Worm Disease: Epidemiology, Control and Treatment." (1979). Bulletin of the World Health Organization Supplement. 57:5
Siddiqui, Munawar., Bayer, Marc J. et al. "Ricin." (July 1997). Mithridata. 8:2.
Revathi, P., Vani, B. et al. Reproductive Toxicity of Capparis aphylla (Roth.) in Male Albino Rats. (2010). International Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Research. 1:3
The Carter Center. "Guinea Worm Disease Eradication." Accessed April 25, 2017.