Dr Kara Filbey took a trip to Ecuador to see how worms affect allergies in a community.

Lessons from the tropics

24 November 2016, Allergies, Parasites, Scope

Dr Kara Filbey took a trip to Ecuador to see how worms affect allergies in a community.

People in the world’s tropical countries have the highest rates of infection with intestinal worms but also the lowest instances of allergy and autoimmune diseases.

In July Kara visited Quininde, a small town in inland Ecuador, and the base for a study of 2400 children and their mothers. The comprehensive ECUAVIDA study is looking for correlations between parasite infection and the development of allergy in the children.

“The children are now 5–8 years old and come into the clinic for regular checks. I was able to watch the staff doing the tests – height, weight, skin prick test, lung function, nasal lavage (wash), blood and urine. I don’t know Spanish and the nurses had no English but when the lab nurse started holding her nose, I knew they were about to sieve the poo to look for worm eggs!”

Keeping track of the participants is a big challenge. Their living conditions are all documented as part of the study, so a visit to update the records is required if the family moves house. Kara accompanied the team to some rural villages in the rain forest during her stay.

“The nurses are amazing. They have to go to places that can be quite dangerous so two always go together with a male driver. Many of the houses were pretty basic with challenging living conditions – one was like a tree house with very precarious stairs we had to clamber up. But the children are just beautiful and the families were very welcoming to us.”

Preliminary results show that 46 percent of the mothers had a worm infection – commonly one of two roundworms and occasionally hookworms or tapeworms. The children are regularly de-wormed at school and therefore have a lower infection rate. There are low rates of allergy in the population.

Kara also visited the Sabin Vaccine Institute and met its senior leaders Professors Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi.

“It was an excellent opportunity to foster and strengthen our collaborations with these leaders in their fields. In Ecuador, getting first-hand experience of research in a challenging environment, sampling and dealing with human participants (rather than our mouse models) and seeing the conditions in which parasitic infection is endemic, was valuable for a wider perspective on the work we are doing here in Wellington.”

Kara was delighted to indulge her love of parasites with a surprise find at the Quininde clinic.

“My favourite thing was seeing their stash of preserved worms that had come from their patients – tapeworms and roundworms. You don’t often get to see them. I know it’s weird for most people but I love them, can you imagine that living inside you – and maybe doing you some good? It’s just amazing!”

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