A life-threatening parasitic worm could be quietly infecting up to 60 per cent of vulnerable Australians in remote northern communities, but the true extent of its spread remains unknown because basic testing is not widespread and the worm is not listed as a nationally notifiable disease.
Strongyloidiasis is an infection caused by parasitic worms entering human bodies and reproducing indefinitely inside the stomach and digestive organs.
Dr Kirstin Ross from Adelaide’s Flinders University says that despite infecting an estimated 370 million people worldwide, which makes the parasite more common than malaria, it remains the most neglected of the neglected tropical diseases.
“The parasitic worm causes a form of hyperinfection which results in the generation of huge numbers inside the human host before moving out of your gut and tissue into other organs,” she said. “Patients are likely to die.”
Symptoms are likely to include diarrhoea, coughing and a hives-like rash.
Detection rates are low, despite potentially high infection rates particularly in indigenous communities living in tropical climates.
PhD student Meruyert Beknazarova is the lead author of a study with the National Strongyloides Working Group, which says medical evidence supports its claims for strongyloidasis to be included on the Australian National Notifiable Disease List.
“Strongyloidiasis is generally considered a disease in developing countries but we actually also see it infect disadvantaged populations right here in Australia,” she said. “It’s impacting indigenous communities, refugees, and even returning holidaymakers.”
Despite the worm’s prevalence in up to 80 per cent of indigenous communities, the number could actually be higher because it remains difficult to detect. There is also no centralised record of cases to track progress.
“The worm tends to be seen in areas where septic or sewerage systems are not working very well or properly, or at all,” Ms Beknazarova said.
There are confirmed examples of fatal cases in Australia, and researchers say a public response is required to make early detection more possible, by adding strongyloidiasis to the notifiable-disease list.
“The problem is we don’t always look for it and so people can be completely unaware. We also don’t understand what environmental conditions allow for its survival,” Ms Beknazarova said.
Flinders University researchers studying the parasite say they are concerned following studies that indicate the worm might become resistant to treatment.