Schistosomiasis adds to poverty burden (1)

Her son Jameson died at 32 of what is believed to be caused by schistosomiasis parasites that have attacked his brain.

September 11, 2022

A microcosm of the hardships inflicted daily on poor Filipinos is that of the ordeal of the Cinco family.

The dusk is already setting in and smoke from the kitchen of her neighbors starts to billow but 54-year-old Myrna Cinco still looks dazed as she gazes at the swaying palay stalks from her window, tears are starting to swell in her eyes once again.

It was only 10 days since she buried her only son, who was the only breadwinner of the family, leaving her and two younger handicapped siblings to fend for themselves.

There is no more rice to cook, the five kilos of newly harvested rice kept in a plastic container are being saved for Jameson’s tapos, the religious ritual marking the 40th day of a person’s death. Their neighbors have been taking turns in giving them food to tide them for the day.

Her son Jameson died at 32 of what is believed to be caused by schistosomiasis parasites that have attacked his brain. The family has yet to get the death certificate but neighbors and workmates in a motorcycle shop all say that Jameson was already showing symptoms of infection — constant seizure, headache, fainting, stomach pains, and fast deterioration of his physical condition.

His employer said Jameson was already hallucinating for a few days before he died at Schistosomiasis Hospital (renamed last year as Governor Benjamin T. Romualdez General Hospital and Schistosomiasis Center in honor of the former Leyte governor and father of Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez).

“We have long been telling him to take praziquantel but he would not listen. For sure he had schisto because he has been farming since he was a child but he never took medication. The last time he collapsed, he agreed to take the medicine but it was already too late,” says his employer Axel Gatela.

Gatela says he is familiar with the symptoms of a person infected with schistosomiasis as his father is also one. “My father is taking his medication regularly so he was able to manage it,” he says.

Attack of the parasites

Schistosomiasis is a parasitic disease (fluke) in the blood that lives and resides in the bloodstream and the human or domestic animal intestines. Where the blood circulates in the body, schistosomiasis swims with it. It can affect the brain, liver, or other organs in the human body.

While the parasites do not choose whom to attack, most of its victims are the poor farmers who are out in the field most of the time and members of households that do not have access to safe water and do their laundry and bathing in a river. Infected individuals who lack nutrition often suffer more complications.

At the early stage of infection, a person would experience abdominal pains, will have blood and mucus on the stool, and may experience diarrhea and headache. Those in the advanced stage may experience bloating of the stomach with the liver and spleen already affected, while others have a convulsion.

Infection occurs when the skin comes in contact with fresh water that is contaminated by the host snail. In the Philippines, the host snail, called Schistosoma japonicum, was first discovered by American scientist Paul Wooley in 1906 in Barangay Gacao in Palo, Leyte after finding that inmates in the New Bilibid Prisons and patients at the Philippine General Hospital who were experiencing the same illness came from Leyte province.

The water becomes contaminated when an infected person openly defecates in a body of water or a wet environment. When the Schistosoma egg enters the host snail, the parasites develop and multiply inside until it becomes a cercaria.

The cercaria leaves the snail and enters the water as free-swimming larvae while waiting for the presence of humans or animals in the water to enter.

One does not need to have a cut or an open wound to get infected. The parasite can penetrate the skin of a person who is wading, swimming, bathing, or washing in contaminated water. Within several weeks, the parasites mature into adult worms and live in the blood vessels of the body where the females produce eggs. Schistosoma japonicum can produce as many as 3,000 eggs in a day.

Some of the eggs travel to the bladder, liver, intestine, brain, or other organs of the body while the rest penetrates the wall of the intestine and passes into the stool.

(To be continued)

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