Hookworm: Helpful or Harmful?
Hookworm affects more than 576 million people across the globe and contributes to an estimated 43 percent reduction in future wage earnings in areas where infected individuals reside. Despite hookworm’s many negative attributes, I recently came across an article that I wanted to explore further to figure out why individuals are purposefully infecting themselves with hookworm to fight allergies.
For some reason, when an individual who suffers from severe allergies infects themselves with hookworm, their allergies seem to go away. And, surprisingly, there is a scientific basis for this. Studies have shown that individuals with hookworm infections are 50% less likely to suffer from allergies. However, these studies tend to gloss over one very important point: hookworm is a dangerous parasite with severe side-effects.
How does hookworm bring about allergy relief? When the hookworm attaches to the human intestinal wall, the immune system begins to attack the parasite. The hookworm has developed a response, using some unknown chemical that suppresses the immune system. Allergies are caused by an overactive immune system, so suppressing the immune system alleviates allergies. But, keep in mind that this same immune system allows the human body to fight off diseases, and suppressing it makes you more susceptible to illness.
Some articles reporting on this hookworm allergy link make hookworm sound like a benign or symbiotic creature. A recent report on hookworm and allergies from Radiolab, a production of WNYC, stated, “You got to a point where the hookworm can survive safely, the worm gets a home, there’s food coming down the food pipe, and in return the human immune system gains some… form of regulatory advantage.” If only that was all hookworm did.
Hookworm feeds upon human blood, causing internal bleeding, loss of iron, anemia, malnutrition, fatigue, weakness, and, in extreme cases, even death. They cause abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, and can even block the intestinal tract, causing major health problems. Women in particular are at greater risk for anemia and, should they be pregnant, are at greater risk for low birth weight, complications in the pregnancy, and are three and a half times more likely to die in childbirth. Infecting yourself with hookworm to stop allergies is taking huge risks with your health, especially given the lack of oversight or regulation of using hookworm to treat allergies.
That being said, there is undeniably potential for treating allergies via hookworm, just not in hookworms themselves. To quote Dr. Peter Hotez, parasitologist and President of Sabin Vaccine Institute, “In its current form, I think this therapy is too risky… The real question is could you isolate the molecules the worms are using to suppress the immune system and use them for therapeutic purposes?" This is where the real potential lies. If we can determine what chemical is used by hookworm, isolate it, and re-create it in doses that can be safely administered, then we will have a real solution to allergies without the significant risks that come with the hookworm. But until then, self-infection with hookworm for therapeutic purposes is not the way to go.