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Elephantiasis and Mosquitoes

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Elephantiasis is a disease carried from tropical worms by infected mosquitoes. The infection is also known as lymphatic filariasis. This disease has been around for many centuries, and historically has shown cases in regions all around the world where disease-carrying parasitic insects are found. These locations include South America, the West Indies, Central Africa, Spain, the Mediterranean and many islands in the South Pacific region of the world. Elephantiasis has also been referenced as morbus herculeus, elephant leg, Barbados leg and myeolymphangioma. People affected with this disease in the world ranges over 110 million.

Causes and Symptoms

Previous medical research shows 90% of all elephantiasis cases are carried by the infected roundworm Wuchereria bancrofti, where humans are the only capable host. There are three mosquito species that carry the bancrofti infection: Culex, Aedes and Anopheles. The infection is transferred by mosquito during feeding sessions on humans. In the process, parasitic larvae are introduced to the lymphatic channel. Time passes and they are allowed to mature on or near the lymph nodes of the body. It takes a few months to a year for a worm to reach adulthood and its length at that stage is estimated to be 1-4 inches long.

Most symptoms humans experience are due to the blockage of the lymphatic system from the fluids adult worms produce in the body. Repeated episodes of vomiting, swells, shaking chills, and pain are typical symptoms. Abscesses can form in lymphatic vessels, or on the surface of the skin. Long-term infection leads to lymphedema and elephantiasis in the legs, arms and reproductive organs. The disease is more intense to travelers who have never been exposed to lymphatic filariasis than it is to natives of tropic areas.


The guaranteed method of determining infection is by detecting the parasite itself. Microscopic blood examinations may reveal the microfilariae, or larva of the parasitic worm in a person’s stream. Sometimes, people that have been infected do not carry any microfilariae. The best time to have blood examined is during the evening when there are more microfilariae in the blood stream. Detecting fully grown worms can be difficult because of their depth within the body’s lymph nodes or system.


The most popular drug for treating lymphatic filariasis is DEC, or known in the United States as Hetrazan. It comes in tablet form and is taken twice a day. When the drug is administered slowly, it injures the adult worms and kills the larvae quickly. To fully remove the adult worms, many treatment sessions are required. The side effects of DEC are due to the body’s reaction to the dead parasites rather than the medication itself. Headache, nausea, itching and joint pain are all common side effects of treatment. Most effects will subside with the continuance of the medication.

Ivermectin is another popular treatment for elephantiasis, for it is an excellent destroyer of parasitic larvae, but studies are still being completed on its effect on adult worms. Ivermectin is usually taken alongside DEC to kill the adult worms, with the same side effects seen. Surgery is the most extreme form of treatment for elephantiasis. It allows the removal of dead worms and draining swelled areas.


Since elephantiasis and lymphatic filariasis cases are mostly found in the tropic and sub tropic regions of the world, many preventative actions can be taken to stop the spread of this disease. Before traveling abroad, taking doses of DEC or Ivermectin will kill any larvae found on an infected mosquito during a human feeding session.

Insecticides, repellants, and protective clothing and bed nets are all methods of keeping mosquitoes away from the body. One of the most cost effective ways of keeping mosquito populations low is by the reduction of standing water. Open pales, buckets, and pools where rainwater is allowed to collect are used by adult mosquitoes as breeding grounds to lay eggs. Emptying these collections of standing water regularly minimizes the chances of allowing mosquitoes to fully develop, thus helping fight the spread of elephantiasis.

It is recommended to visit a travel advisor or doctor before venturing to any tropical region where the disease is found.

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