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Soil-Transmitted Helminthiasis: Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Dan Washmuth

Dan has taught college Nutrition, Anatomy, Physiology, and Sports Nutrition courses and has a master's degree in Dietetics & Nutrition.

Soil-transmitted helminthiasis is a type of infection caused by a worm and transmitted through contaminated soil. This lesson will provide the reader with information on the definition, symptoms, and treatment of this condition.

Intestinal Worms

Aluna is a 14-year-old girl who lives in Kenya. Aluna is very active and is often found playing and running throughout the fields near her village. Unfortunately, the village Aluna lives in is very poor and does not have proper plumbing or sewage removal.

Recently, Aluna started to feel quite ill and began suffering from nausea, vomiting, and extreme fatigue. She has also become very confused. Worried about these symptoms, Aluna's mother takes her to the hospital, which is located several miles away from their village. At the hospital, doctors put Aluna through several tests to see what is causing her illness. After reviewing the test results, a doctor informs Aluna and her mother that she is suffering from soil-transmitted helminthiasis.

What Is Soil-Transmitted Helminthiasis?

Soil-transmitted helminthiasis is a type of infection caused by an intestinal worm (helminth is a term that means 'parasitic worm') and transmitted through contaminated soil. The specific types of worms that can cause this infection include:

  • Hookworms
  • Whipworms
  • Roundworms

These worms live in the intestines of the people they infect. While in the intestines, they will lay thousands of eggs each day. These eggs end up in a person's feces. When a person defecates on the ground (which often occurs in very poor areas that do not have proper plumbing, such as Aluna's village), these eggs will then contaminate the soil.

This is a picture of the intestines of a person infected with a hookworm.
hookworm

Soil-transmitted helminthiasis is transmitted when a person accidentally consumes the soil that is contaminated with the eggs of whipworms and roundworms. For example, a person may get this soil on their hands and then use their hands to eat without washing them first. Additionally, a person may become infected by eating contaminated fruits and vegetables that haven't been properly washed or peeled. Once the eggs are consumed, they will hatch inside the person's intestines and develop into adult worms.

Conversely, the eggs of hookworms do not cause infection via ingestion. Rather, hookworm larvae get inside the body by crawling through a person's skin. Hookworm infection often occurs when people walk on contaminated soil with bare feet.

Soil-transmitted helminthiasis is a very prevalent disease, infecting over 1.5 billion people worldwide, which is almost one-fourth of the world's population. The majority of infections occur in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa, China, East Asia, and the Americas, where sanitation is lacking.

Symptoms

People who are infected with only a small number of these worms will often show no symptoms at all. However, soil-transmitted helminthiasis that involves a large number of worms can cause the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Malnutrition

It should be noted that children who are infected with soil-transmitted helminthiasis may suffer from impaired physical and cognitive development.

Common symptoms of soil-transmitted helminthiasis include stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting.
abdominal pain

Treatment

Soil-transmitted helminthiasis can be treated through the administration of certain medications, including albendazole and mebendazole, which are designed to kill parasitic worms that infect a person's body. Even more important than treatment is prevention, which includes simple, basic personal hygiene and sanitation practices. For example, handwashing and creating a common place to use the restroom that is far away from food and water supplies can help to reduce the transmission of this disease.

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