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Scientists to worm out disease from burrowing parasite

Rudi Maxwell -

A new research project is aiming to eliminate a potentially-fatal disease caused by a parasitic roundworm that burrows through the skin into the lungs and gut.

Strongyloidiasis is a tropical disease, endemic in remote Indigenous communities across northern Australia, caused by the parasitic worm strongyloides stercoralis, which thrives in environments with poor sanitation.

Professor Darren Gray is leading the project and a director of QIMR Berghofer's Population Health Program, which has received a $5 million grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

"Strongyloidiasis is the most neglected of the neglected diseases," he said.

"Despite being preventable and treatable, there is currently no global or national control strategy to manage its identification, prevention and management.

"With an estimated prevalence of up to 60 per cent, Aboriginal communities in northern Australia appear to have one of the highest rates of strongyloidiasis in the world."

Symptoms are highly variable but the infection can lead to life-threatening diseases including sepsis and pneumonia.

Infestations are linked to faecal contamination and dogs may also play a role in the parasite's life-cycle.

Molecular parasitologist Catherine Gordon said addressing poor sanitation infrastructure, access to clean water, and limited access to health care and health education are crucial to controlling the parasite.

"If you don't look for this disease, you won't find it," Dr Gordon said.

"To date, there has been a lack of screening, testing, and education."

The project is seeking to determine the true burden of the disease in East Arnhem Land, what role animals play in transmission and will develop inexpensive and rapid diagnostic tests.

The team will pilot an elimination program at two sites, combining treatment, improved sanitation and hygiene, community engagement, education, veterinary management and surveillance.

Prof Gray said in addition to eliminating strongyloidiasis, the program is expected to reduce the impact of other common and preventable infections of poverty, including scabies and group A streptococcus, ultimately reducing the burden of rheumatic heart disease.

"This research is a game-changer for the control of infectious diseases of poverty globally and could ultimately contribute to the breaking of the poverty cycle by improving health and wellbeing and increasing educational attainment and economic output," he said.

Rudi Maxwell - AAP

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