The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Found: 1 ancient parasite egg linked to disease that still infects 200 million people globally

  • Print

LONDON - In a skeleton more than 6,200 years old, scientists have found the earliest known evidence of infection with a parasitic worm that now afflicts more than 200 million people worldwide.

Archaeologists discovered a parasite egg near the pelvis of a child skeleton in northern Syria and say it dates back to a time when ancient societies first used irrigation systems to grow crops. Scientists suspect the new farming technique meant people were spending a lot of time wading in warm water — ideal conditions for the parasites to jump into humans. That may have triggered outbreaks of the water-borne flatworm disease known as schistosomiasis.

"The invention of irrigation was a major technological breakthrough (but) it had unintended consequences," said Gil Stein, a professor of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Chicago, one of the report's authors. "A more reliable food supply came at the cost of more disease," he wrote in an email.

People can catch the flatworm parasite when they are in warm fresh water; the tiny worms are carried by snails and can burrow into human skin. After growing into adult worms, they live in the bladder, kidneys, intestines and elsewhere in the body for years. The parasites can cause symptoms including a fever, rash, abdominal pain, vomiting and paralysis of the legs. These days, the disease can be easily treated with drugs to kill the worms.

Stein said there was evidence of wheat and barley farming in the town where the skeletons were found and that irrigation might have also spurred outbreaks of other diseases like malaria by creating pools of stagnant water for mosquitoes to breed.

Piers Mitchell, another study author, said ancient farming societies could have inadvertently launched the global transmission of the flatworm parasites, which sicken millions of people every year. He said modern irrigation systems are still spreading diseases in developing countries.

"In many parts of Africa, someone clever decides to put in a dam or an artificial water source and then 10 years later, everyone's getting schistosomiasis,"Mitchell said.

The research was published online Thursday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Other experts agreed it was likely that irrigation spread parasitic diseases beginning in ancient times.

"Egypt along the Nile was a hotspot for generations because people were crammed into the flood plain and there were probably a lot of people who had low-level (flatworm) infections for their entire lives," said Quentin Bickle, a parasite expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "People would have known there was something weird going on but they wouldn't have known what to do about it."

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Glenn January won't blame offensive line for first loss

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Gardening Column- Assiniboine Park English Garden. July 19, 2002.
  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 090728 / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS White Pelicans belly up to the sushi bar Tuesday afternoon at Lockport. One of North America's largest birds is a common sight along the Red RIver and on Lake Winnipeg. Here the fight each other for fish near the base of Red RIver's control structure, giving human fisher's downstream a run for their money.

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Which of Manitoba's new landlord-tenant rules are you looking forward to most?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google