Helminths (//) are large multicellular organisms, which when mature can generally be seen with the naked eye. Helminths belong to the group of intestinal parasites (the other type of intestinal parasite are the protozoa). An infection by a Helminth is known as helminthiasis, soil-transmitted helminthiasis, helminth infection or intestinal worm infection. The same naming convention applies to all helminths whereby the "-sis" at the end of the name of the worm is added to signify the infection with that particular worm, e.g. Ascaris is the name of a particular helminth, and Ascariasis is the name of the infectious disease caused by this helminth.
They are worm-like organisms living in and feeding on living hosts, receiving nourishment and protection while disrupting their hosts' nutrient absorption, causing weakness and disease. Those that live inside the digestive tract are called intestinal parasites. They can live inside humans and other animals.
Helminths is a polyphyletic group of morphologically similar organisms, consisting of members of the following taxa: monogeneans, cestodes (tapeworms), nematodes (roundworms), and trematodes (flukes). The following table shows the principal morphological distinctions for three of these helminth groups:
|Tapeworms (Cestodes)||Flukes (Trematodes)||Roundworms (Nematodes)|
|Shape||Segmented plane||Unsegmented plane||Cylindrical|
|Digestive tube||No||Ends in cecum||Ends in anus|
|Sex||Hermaphroditic||Hermaphroditic, except schistosomes which are dioecious||Dioecious|
|Attachment organs||Sucker or bothridia, and rostellum with hooks||Oral sucker and ventral sucker or acetabulum||Lips, teeth, filariform extremities, and dentary plates|
|Example diseases in humans||Tapeworm infection||Schistosomiasis, swimmer's itch||Ascariasis, dracunculiasis (guinea worm), elephantiasis, enterobiasis (pinworm), filariasis, hookworm, onchocerciasis, trichinosis, trichuriasis (whipworm)|
Use in medicine
Parasitic worms have been used as a medical treatment for various diseases, particularly those involving an overactive immune response. As humans have evolved with parasitic worms, proponents argue they are needed for a healthy immune system. Scientists are looking for a connection between the prevention and control of parasitic worms and the increase in allergies such as hay-fever in developed countries. Parasitic worms may be able to damp down the immune system of their host, making it easier for them to live in the intestine without coming under attack. This may be one mechanism for their proposed medicinal effect.
One study suggests a link between the rising rates of metabolic syndrome in the developed worlds and the largely successful efforts of Westerners to eliminate intestinal parasites. The work suggests eosinophils (a type of white blood cell) in fat tissue play an important role in preventing insulin resistance by secreting interleukin 4, which in turn switches macrophages into "alternative activation". Alternatively-activated macrophages are important to maintaining glucose homeostasis (i.e., blood sugar regulation). Helminth infection causes an increase in eosinophils. In the study, the authors fed rodents a high-fat diet to induce metabolic syndrome, and then injected them with helminths. Helminth infestation improved the rodents' metabolism. The authors concluded:
Although sparse in blood of persons in developed countries, eosinophils are often elevated in individuals in rural developing countries where intestinal parasitism is prevalent and metabolic syndrome rare. We speculate that eosinophils may have evolved to optimize metabolic homeostasis during chronic infections by ubiquitous intestinal parasites….
Helminth eggs as indicator in sanitation
The eggs are the infective stage of the helminths’ life cycle. Finding eggs in treated wastewater and treated sewage sludge or faecal sludge is one of the parameters to assess the efficiency of diverse wastewater and sludge treatment processes. Therefore, the presence or absence of viable helminth eggs (also called ova) in a sample of dried faecal matter, compost or faecal sludge is often used as an indicator on how well a treatment process has killed off pathogens. Helminth eggs are a good indicator organism because they are harder to destroy than any other pathogen (i.e. bacteria, protozoa, viruses). In particular, the number of viable Ascaris eggs is often taken as an indicator organism in treatment processes. The detection of viable helminth eggs in samples of wastewater, sludge or fresh feces (as a diagnostic tool for the infection helminthiasis) is not straight forward and many laboratories in developing countries lack the right equipment or the skilled staff required to do so.
- "Eat worms - feel better". BBC News. 3 December 2003. Retrieved 13 July 2011.
- Wu, Davina; et al. (8 April 2011). "Eosinophils Sustain Adipose Alternatively Activated Macrophages Associated with Glucose Homeostasis". Science 332 (6026): 243–247. doi:10.1126/science.1201475. PMC 3144160. PMID 21436399. Retrieved 18 April 2011.
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