Saturday, January 12, 2013

12 January 1911: Hookworm Experts Are Here!

On this day in 1911, a small notice appeared with other brief local news items in the Athens Banner:

The doctors were in Athens as part of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease. In the report issued a few weeks later by the commission, they singled out the State Normal School's initiative:

In the State Normal School, at Athens, Georgia, the student teachers are being given instruction in hookworm disease to the end that they as teachers may be able to give definite instruction to the children in their own schools.
 The work done at the Normal School was part of the report focusing on educating primary school children about "the dangers of soil pollution and how to avoid them." 

In the early 20th century, hookworm was a common problem in the United States, especially in the South, where the warm, humid weather allowed hookworm larvae to thrive. The hookworm larva typically infects through the sole of the foot, migrates through the bloodstream to the heart and lungs, and then matures to adulthood in the small intestines of its mammal host. Though it is only infectious in its third larval stage, that stage can last three to four weeks. Once inside the host, the worm can get as long as 11 millimeters and live for over two years.

Rockefeller used a part of his vast fortune to fight against hookworm infection in the United States, starting in 1910. Though some people would only have gastrointestinal symptoms when infected with a few hookworms, poor diet and/or a severe infection caused anemia and protein loss. 

The Sanitary Commission helped fund outhouses at schools and stressed the importance of rural children to wear shoes to avoid infection. Within just five years, the organization had made great headway and significantly reduced the number of infected individuals.

Today, there are approximately 576 to 740 million people infected with hookworms worldwide, primarily in developing countries. Doctors who treat people with hookworm, however, began to notice that children with hookworms had far fewer occurrences of asthma and weaker reactions to allergens, which has led to controlled experiments with hookworm infection in healthy individuals in hope of isolating the way the worms slow down the immune system and alleviate allergy symptoms. The plan is to reproduce the mechanism the worms use, since actual infection with hookworms is both dangerous and disgusting.

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