Why extinction is not always a bad thing

Posted: November 16, 2012 in Nematodes

Generally, biologists tend to get pretty annoyed when a species goes extinct. It doesn’t matter if its a Panda, an Emperor Penguin, or some ant living under leaves in Uzbekistan which no one has ever heard of before. Whatever the animal, there is bound to be, somewhere, someone who cares about it.

Which means that the Guinea Worm, or to give it its full name Dracunculus medinensis, is so utterly horrific that really, no one seems that bothered about the fact that soon it will have gone extinct, except for people on a website called SavetheGuineaWorm.com, which is either a) a spoof or b), like everything on the Internet, run solely by mad people. And there’s a reason why it has attracted so little sympathy. Even its name indicates that it unpleasant. The first thing you probably thought of when you saw it is that it looks like ‘Dracula’, and so is a parasite, which is half right. It is actually apparantly derived from the Latin phrase ‘affliction with little Dragons’ (Barry 2007) which means that it is a parasite that causes agonising pain. (For those of you wondering why ‘Dracula’ and ‘Draco’ (Latin for ‘dragon’) sound the same (you seriously need to get a life if you are) , its because the original Dracula was a member of the Order of the Dragon, possibly the best name of anything, ever,  formed to protect Eastern Europe from the Turks).

Order of the Dragon

For an Order with such a cool name, this does look like it was designed by a nine year old who just thought of a cool name for his gang. But frankly, we’d rather go with any picture, no matter how poorly drawn, than actually show you a guinea worm. (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

So anyway, ignoring the anecdotes about a tyrant so horrific he inspired the most influential monster ever, and getting back to something truly horrible, we have the Guinea worm, which has been around so long it was thought to have inspired the  asklepian, the international ‘symbol’ of healing. (It nowadays features a snake, but could date from a time when the best time to extract the worm was to twist it out using a stick). 

This worm, in its larval form, lives in dirty water, swimming around, presumably thinking purely Evil thoughts. These larvae infect copepods, tiny water fleas, which are otherwise pretty much harmless. Sooner or later, a hapless human will drink this water, and swallow a number of these infected water fleas. And this is where things move away from ‘mildly sick making’ to a string of stuttering obscenities.

Inside the stomach is pretty strong hydrochloric acid, which dissolves away the flea but leaves the young worm (wormling ?) unharmed. So basically, this worm is so tough it can survive being immersed in acid, which dissolves its original host away to nothing, which we have to admit is kind of badass as well as utterly terrifying. The worm then finds a nice warm body cavity, mates, and if its a female lays its eggs, whilst it continues to grow, sometimes reaching lengths of up to sixty centimeters  (If you are wondering what happened to the males, they die and get absorbed by the female; meaning misogyny is a common but short lived attitude along Guinea Worm males).

So, nothing much happens for about a year (Barry 2007), until the female(s) inside the host (yes, if you are really, really, really unlucky you can have as many as forty of them inside you) get restive; as this point they may be over two feet long and be as thick as a ‘spaghetti strand’ according to one account, presumably written by a rather hungry student. They want their young to experience the big, wide world, and the way to do that is to get back into the water. And the way to do that is to make humans go into the water. And, because nature hates us, it designed a method that is both effective and terrifically cruel. Like most of nature, really.

They  stimulate a ‘burning’ sensation in the affected parts of the body. Because, you see, these worms have somehow evolved the ability to make humans feel pain; because that makes humans want to dunk the affected body part in water. Basically, the worm is using an admittedly very crude form of mind control, ‘knowing’ that burning pain makes people want to go into water to cool it down. An almost brainless invertebrate is manipulating the planet’s apex species into doing exactly what it wants via torturing it, which is probably enough to utterly refute he existence of a loving God on its own. The pain is said to be agonizing  and can effectively cripple people for months on end.  The eggs are released into the water, and the whole horrible cycle starts again. Oh, and if you thought you could just pull the worm out, you can’t, because otherwise it will snap and its body, in a last, petty act of revenge, will promptly start to putrefy inside you.

There is some good news however. According to the Carter Centre, in 1986 there were around 3,500,000 cases of this disease. By 2011 there were just over a  thousand; and that number represented a massive decline even from 2010. The parasite NEEDS a human host to complete its life-cycle, and so, like smallpox, it can’t really hide in the environment, waiting to re-emerge. Although the target to utterly eradicate the disease by 2009 was missed (http://www.who.int/wer/2010/wer8519.pdf), it seems likely it’ll be accomplished soon. And best of all, a lot of the measures used to combat the worm are far from expensive, and often result in other benefits as well – for example, establishing clean water supplies. Ironically enough, the WHO, which is in charge of eliminating things like this nematode, has as its emblem the asklepian. Which you have to admit is irony. Or karma. Or – something, at any rate.  (And we have to admit we only have the vaguest idea of what ‘irony’, ‘karma’ or anything else actually means).

And you thought there could never be a feel-good story about humanity wiping out an entire species…

WHO Flag

The flag of the WHO basically harks back to a time when the best way to extract parasitic worms from people was to twist them out using small sticks. Frankly, it makes us doubt their medical credentials (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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