“I wonder what choice morsels you have for me today” he chattered to no one in particular.
Sweeping the debris scattered already on the bench into an overflowing litter bin, the Scientist squeezed onto a dusty chair which creaked ominously under his weight. He reached for the pot scraping it slowly across the wooden surface until it was directly in front of him.
“What have we here, I wonder” he muttered to himself.
He reached into the pocket of his white coat and pulled out thick rimmed spectacles which he perched onto his misshapen nose. His eyes peered myopically through the rime of dust and grease which coated the lenses, as he tried to make out what was written in spidery letters on the paper around the pot.
Eventually, with an almost negligent snort, he gave up and pulled the paper away to drop it carelessly next to the litter bin amongst the gathering detritus on the laboratory floor.
Then he picked up the pot again and pressed his face to the sides, staring into the void inside.
He chuckled excitedly to himself.
“Hmmm. Delicious, marvellous, exquisite” he exclaimed, forgetting himself for a moment, before nervously looking around the room whilst clutching the pot to his chest possessively.
Satisfied that he was alone, he started to carefully undo the lid of the pot.
The Scientist took a pencil from his pocket and used it to scoop out the treasure from within, letting it drop onto the surface in front of him.
The beast was revealed in all its glory. Over a metre long, and pencil thin, the glistening white worm lay helpless on the wooden slab.
“Hello, my pretty” the Scientist said to his latest catch.
The Scientist used a dusty hand lens to study the specimen further. He stared intently, moving the slimy body this way and that to get a better view.
All the while he muttered and chuckled to himself excitedly as all of the details sprang into life.
“Yes, yes, there’s the head. Hmmmm, lovely body. Look at the mouth, so beautiful. Yes, yes.”
As he rolled the creature back over it appeared to twitch slightly.
The Scientist froze for a moment, then taking his pencil once again he poked at the body.
It twitched again.
“It’s alive! It’s alive!” cried the Scientist.
Lightening flashed outside the windows, followed by a dramatic crash of thunder. Rain began to hammer against the laboratory’s filthy windows, making the glass rattle in the pane. The building had been glossy and new back in the 1890s but had long moved passed its date of condemning back in the 1960s!
The Scientist gave a little excited dance in his seat, before recovering his composure. There was more to do, and he needed to take things to the next step.
The Scientist slid out of his seat and shuffled over to another device in the corner of the lab, wiping the beast’s slimy body goo from his hands onto his lab coat as he went. He settled heavily into the seat by the device and took a moment to compose himself before this next delicate operation…
“Yes, what is it?” said the nervous voice.
“Errrmmmm” said the Scientist, “this is the on-call Microbiology Biomedical Scientist. I’ve had a look at the worm you sent us and it is definitely dracunculiasis”.
“Dracula-what!!” said the now increasingly concerned ward doctor! … “Is this another microbiology Halloween prank!?”
“No … I’d suggest you might want to have a chat with the on-call Infectious Diseases Physician about how to manage this. I’ll issue a report on the computer, unusual this one…so thought you’d like to know as soon as possible. Have a good Halloween.”
The BMS hung up the phone, and carefully looked around the lab.
He let out a sudden chilling laugh, “Brrruuuu ha ha hah haaah!”. Oh, he really did enjoy Halloween, especially when gruesome species of worm were not a prank!
What the heck is dracunculiasis?
The common name for the infection dracunculiasis is Guinea worm. It is caused by the roundworm Dracunculus medinensis. Larvae live in tiny crustaceans called copepods. When someone drinks water contaminated with the copepods, the copepods are digested releasing infective larvae which then penetrate the intestinal wall, where they wait and mature within the abdomen. Once they mature the male and female mate, then the male dies; the male is about 4cm long, but the female is over 100cm long! Yep that’s a metre or more!!
Over the following months the female migrates through the body, eventually coming to the skin after about a year. Yep that is a year, 365 days of being worm infested!! Firstly, a lump appears, then an ulcer, before the end of the female worm finally protrudes. When the wound comes into contact with water the female worm releases a milky white fluid containing hundreds of thousands of tiny worms! The worms enter the copepods again, become infectious after a few weeks, and the cycle repeats!
There is no specific treatment for dracunculiasis. Instead, as the worm emerges the wound is soaked in wet bandages to “encourage” the worm to release its eggs into the bandages and away from any water source to prevent further cases. As the worm’s body emerges it can be gently wrapped around a piece of gauze, a pencil or a stick to prevent it going back in (yuck!!) and this allows steady pressure to be added to slowly coax the whole worm’s length out. This can take a very long time as the worm is so long; did I say over 1 metre long?! Note: It is important not to break the worm as this kills the worm, prevents it being removed, and causes really nasty localised reactions in the skin and soft tissue, as if having the worm was not enough already!
It really is an ancient disease. Fragments of Guinea worm have been found in 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummies and it has been written about in texts, from what is now Sudan, from 4,000 years ago. In fact, it has been suggested that the Rod of Asclepius (the symbol of medicine and even the adopted badge of the British Medical Association) may represent a Guinea worm being wrapped around a stick to draw it out of the skin… gotta love medical history... cool huh!
P.S. Apologies to all BMSs… but I have seen some of you dressed as convincing mummies at Halloween parties and it appears that some of you continue this “look” in the lab!! Only joking!!!!