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Can a mosquito-borne worm boost the risk of AIDS?

Researchers found that people carrying the Wuchereria bancrofti parasite (a mosquito-borne worm) were twice as likely to have the AIDS virus

health and fitness Updated: Aug 04, 2016 07:28 IST

The mosquito-borne worm can live in the human lymphatic system for years without showing any symptoms of HIV.(Shutterstock)

A study conducted in Tanzania, Africa, suggests that people infected with a common parasitic worm may be twice as likely to acquire the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

The parasite, Wuchereria bancrofti (W. bancrofti ), is found in many areas in Africa, where HIV infection rates are high. It can cause elephantiasis, a disease that horribly deforms the limbs and other parts of the body.

Also endemic in Asia, the western Pacific and parts of the Caribbean and South America, the parasite has infected 120 million people worldwide.

Read: You should know: 5 deadliest mosquito-borne diseases in India

The mosquito-borne worm can live in the human lymphatic system for years without showing any symptoms.

The new findings, published in The Lancet medical journal, added a compelling reason for tackling elephantiasis, known to scientists as lymphatic filariasis, the authors argued.

“The long disease duration of W. bancrofti infection -- around 10 years -- creates an ongoing immune response,” which could make people more susceptible to HIV infection, said Inge Kroidl, a tropical medicine specialist at the University of Munich in Germany.

For the study, conducted between 2006 and 2011, researchers analysed 2,699 people in the Kyela district of Mbeya, southwest Tanzania.

Lymphatic filariasis affects one in four people in the country, and has long been suspected as a factor driving the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.

People carrying Wuchereria bancrofti are twice as likely to have the AIDS virus, claim researchers. (Shutterstock)

Participants were examined annually over a five-year period. Blood, urine, stool, and sputum samples were collected to test for HIV and W. bancrofti infection. Interviews determined if sexual activity could have heightened their risk of contracting HIV.

The researchers found that people carrying the parasite were twice as likely to have the AIDS virus. The impact was the highest among adolescents and young adults.

For now, the observed link is merely a correlation, with no proven cause-and-effect, the researchers pointed out.

It does, however, highlight the need for an elephantiasis cure.

“Lymphatic filariasis elimination programmes in the past decade have focused on the reduction of transmission but made only limited efforts to cure W. bancrofti infection,” Kroidl said.

Prevention currently focuses on the use of bed nets and other mosquito repellents.

Read: Abhishek Bachchan meets elephantiasis patients

Other infections such as chlamydia, herpes and syphilis are known to increase susceptibility to HIV.

Jennifer Downs and Daniel Fitzgerald of the Center for Global Health at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York (USA), writing in a commentary, said further study was urgently needed to confirm the findings.

“Controlling lymphatic filariasis has the potential not only to decrease morbidity from the disease itself, but could additionally prevent incident HIV infections among the 120 million people living with this chronic infection,” they said in The Lancet.

Lymphatic filariasis is classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of about 20 “neglected tropical diseases” that collectively affect more than a billion people in developing countries.

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