Overview – What is it?
Bilharzia, also known as Schistosomiasis, is an acute and chronic disease that is caused by parasitic worms which are found in fresh water bodies such as lakes. This disease is more prevalent in the tropical and subtropical regions.
Some of the symptoms that are caused by this disease are fatigue, weight loss, fever and abdominal pain.
Bilharzia can be diagnosed by testing stool, urine or blood samples and can be treated using medication such as Praziquantel.
Prevention of this disease is possible especially by avoiding contact with contaminated water, in areas where the disease is common.
Causes – What causes it?
Bilharzia is caused by parasitic worms that are carried by freshwater snails which enter the human body once a person gets into contact with contaminated water. The fact that this parasite is carried by snails, is why bilharzia is also referred to as the ‘snail fever’. The different types of bilharzia parasites affect different organs in the body.
When a person who is infected with the disease urinates or defecates in water bodies, the bilharzia eggs are passed into the water where they hatch and live in freshwater snails and can be passed to other people who get into contact with the contaminated water. The larvae enter the human body through the skin when washing clothes, swimming or bathing. Once the larvae enter the bloodstream they are able to move inside the body to different body organs such as the intestines, liver and the lungs.
Symptoms – What do you feel?
The symptoms for bilharzia vary depending on how a person reacts to the parasites’ eggs. Symptoms usually start manifesting after weeks, months or for some people, even years. These symptoms may include the following:
- Weight loss
- Blood in the stool or urine
- Pain in the muscles and joints
- Abdominal pain
- Itchy red rash
- Pain and vaginal bleeding during sex, for women
- Long-term exposure to the bilharzia parasite can lead to bladder cancer in both men and women.
- In extreme cases, bilharzia can cause enlargement of the liver and spleen and can also lead to anaemia in children.
Diagnosis – How do you diagnose it?
- Initial Consultation: Diagnosis usually begins with a general consultation which allows the doctor to understand some things that can help in the diagnosis. The doctor gets to know whether you have travelled to parts of the world where bilharzia is common and whether you might have been exposed to contaminated water. If the doctor suspects that you might have the disease, you can be referred to an expert or have tests done to confirm the suspicion.
- Testing blood, stool or urine samples: These tests will help in checking whether there are bilharzia eggs in the samples.
- Blood in the urine test: This involves getting a urine sample and dipping a strip of paper that has previously been soaked in a reactive agent.
- Rectum Biopsy: This test involves getting tissue samples from the rectum especially in intestinal bilharzia cases, to check for the presence of the bilharzia-causing eggs.
Treatment – How do you treat it?
Treatment for bilharzia is aimed at reducing the damage caused to body organs and is usually repeated after some time or can be delayed until the worms have grown. The common medicines that are used in this treatment include:
- Praziquantel: Used to treat all forms of bilharzia,
- Metrifonate: Used in the treatment of urinary bilharzia, and
- Oxamniquine: Used for treating intestinal bilharzia.
Steroids can also be used to relieve the symptoms brought about by acute bilharzia or where damage to the brain or nervous system is involved.
Prevention – How do you prevent it?
The best way to prevent bilharzia is by avoiding exposure to contaminated water whether through swimming, washing clothes or bathing. Other ways of preventing this disease include:
Using waterproof trousers and boots when crossing a water body.
- Boiling or filtering drinking water.
- Using bathing water which has been brought to boiling point for 1 minute and then cooled, before bathing.
- Avoiding medicines sold locally for treating or preventing bilharzia.
- After being accidentally exposed to contaminated water, using a towel to dry yourself vigorously to try and prevent the water from penetrating the skin, however, it is not completely reliable.