The Guinea Worm

Like all of you, lately I’ve been listening to The Pirate History Podcast. As far as I can see, it is the world’s only regularly occurring, current podcast devoted to the history of privateers and their adventures on the high seas, predominantly in the 17th century. I was surprised to find that it is not at all childish, comedic or overly sensational but is meticulously researched and delivered in a low key format, erudite, with a wealth of interesting information. You can find the pod on iTunes or simply Google “The Pirate History Podcast” and head to their website.

I was listening to Episode 61: “More Willful and Less Under Command” that dropped on March 24th. This episode dealt with the aftermath of the English Pacific Adventure in 1682 and the ships that embarked on a new adventure at sea. It talks specifically about one William Dampier, an English privateer, explorer and navigator who became the first Englishman to explore parts of what is today Australia. He was the first person to circumnavigate the globe three times and wrote A New Voyage ‘Round the World, a ‘sensational’ book from 1697 that was made up of his diaries documenting his first circumnavigation.

In 2006, Dampier got his own stamp in Ecuador.

Episode 61 speaks of Dampier retiring to the English colony of Virginia. The in-depth podcast talks of Dampier and other Englishmen living idly, in modest luxury, but wonders why Dampier didn’t go home to England to be with his wife. Turns out Dampier was ill. Here’s where my ears really perked up – and my stomach turned.

I’ll quote the podcast: “He did discover a strange, string-like growth coming out of his leg. He correctly identified it as a Guinea Worm, and spent weeks slowly spooling it around a stick and slowly drawing it out of his flesh”. Say what, now? This I had to look up.

Turns out Dracunculus medinensis is a thing. Also called the Guinea worm, derived from the Guinea region of Africa, it’s a nematode, the female of which causes the disease and can be as long as 31 inches. The larvae are found in fresh water and can be ingested by humans. The male and female nematodes reproduce in the stomach of the “host” and settle in the intestine. The male dies and the female settles just under the skin. One year later, the infected person notices a blister, usually on the lower extremities but sometimes on the hand or scrotum. Then the blister ruptures and the female slowly emerges from the skin! Like, barf. You know how hard it is to type that?

While you are experiencing intense pain and irritation, you need to begin to remove this thing from your body. You submerge the affected body part in water then slowly coax the worm out. Sure enough, as the Pirate History Podcast says, the way to do this is to get it wrapped around a stick – are you picturing this?! – and gently pull. Gently – you don’t want to break it off and have to start again. This extraction process can take several days! The idea of a worm wrapped around a stick is thought to be behind the symbol of medicine, the Rod of Aclepius.
I was going to share a picture of a Guinea worm but I just couldn’t.

There’s good news, though. The Guinea worm is thought to be nearly eradicated and still only exists in African regions such as the Congo, Angola, Ethiopia and others. In 1986, there were 3.5 million cases reported in 16 countries but last year there were only 30 cases reported in 2 countries.

I just figured you guys would like to know about the Guinea worm – if I can’t ‘unknow’ this, why should you get off? Think about it next time you’re out swimming. 


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