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Germany

Researchers Find Way to Beat Elephantitis

A team of scientists from the University of Bonn has made a breakthrough in the treatment of elephantitis, a parasitic disease that leads to swelling in the limbs.

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Limbs swollen like elephant legs are a sign of the disease

According to the World Health Organization, some 120 million people in Africa and India suffer from elephantitis, or lymphatic filariasis. The disease -- brought about by round worms, or nematodes, -- affects the lymph system, and can leave sufferers' limbs looking like elephants' legs.

After decades of research, a team of scientists at the University of Bonn led by Professor Achim Hörauf has found a breakthrough method of fighting the worms.

Follow the bacteria

Certain bacteria inside the worms enable the worms to live, parasitologists found. By fighting the bacteria with antibiotics, they arrived at their solution.

"We tried it in animal tests and the results were shockingly good. The worms met their maker very quickly. We decided to try the therapy on people," Hörauf said.

The round worm grows up to seven centimeters long, and is carried to its host as a larva by mosquitos. It then attaches itself to the host's lymphatic system, where it makes thousands of nests and blocks the entire system.

Mikrofilarie von Wuchereria bancrofti unter dem Mikroskop

Microfilament of Wuchereria Bancrofti bacteria

The result in people is infected and swollen legs. The skin becomes leathery and fungus covered. The entire body is weakened and thus susceptible to other illnesses.

Four years ago, the Bonn-based scientists began their pilot project in Tanzania and Ghana, which employs five scientists from the university clinic, and uses the help of local African researchers. The breakthrough was so quick because the team used an already approved antibiotic to get its results.

"We used the antibiotic Doxicyclin, which is already registered, so we didn't need to do any time consuming phase-one study to test the safety of the drug. We even know what the length of the therapy should be," Hörauf said.

Irreversible damage

The cure doesn't work for everyone, however. If the swelling in the lymph system is already in an advanced stage, then the worms may well die, but an already damaged lymphatic system cannot be repaired.

While elefantitis is mostly still seen in Africa and India, there are also occurrences in Germany. Most of those cases are brought in from aid workers in Africa, immigrants, or soldiers who served in Africa, Hörauf added.

Now, researchers have learned that Doxicyclin can be used as a preventive medicine as well.

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  • Date 30.06.2005
  • Author Mechthild Greten (jen)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/6qsu
  • Date 30.06.2005
  • Author Mechthild Greten (jen)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/6qsu