Did A Parasite Really Swim Up The Penis Of A British Tourist?

Electron micrograph of an adult male Schistosoma parasitic worm. David Williams/Illinois State University/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A quick dip in an African lake recently left a British tourist with months of debilitating illness after, in his words, a parasite "crawled up" his penis. Although that last claim might be a little on the sensational side, his story is still a fascinating and frightening insight into the weird world of parasites.

James Michael, a 32-year-old from London, recently spoke to the British tabloids about his experience of contracting a nasty Schistosoma infection while swimming on holiday in Africa. 

Back in the summer of 2017, he went traveling with some friends around southeastern Africa where he enjoyed swimming and canoeing in Lake Malawai. Shortly after returning home, James fell acutely sick, suffering from a constant feeling of fatigue and a loss of sensation in his legs. 

After months of confusion and misdiagnosis, doctors from the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London eventually told James he had contracted schistosomiasisHe was given a course of anti-worm drugs, but continued to suffer from a debilitating illness that left him bed-ridden for three months. Even after being released from the hospital, he could only walk with the help of crutches for another four months. 

"When I look back at photos from my time in Africa, it's weird to think that's where the parasite crawled up my penis,” Michael told The Sun.

This infection is caused by a blood-dwelling parasitic Schistosoma flatworm that can be found in freshwater in tropical and subtropical areas, especially in parts of Africa and the Middle East. While these blood flukes spend much of their life cycle in the bodies of freshwater snails, they spend the latter part looking for human hosts to infect and lay eggs in. 

The parasite doesn’t necessarily need to “crawl” up the urethra since they are able to penetrate the skin and make their way around the body through the bloodstream to other organs. It’s even possible to contract the parasite just by wading through or bathing in infected bodies of water.

When the disease specifically affects the bladder and urinary tract, it's typically caused by the species Schistosoma haematobium and referred to as urinary schistosomiasis. The flatworms can live in blood vessels around the infected person's bladder or urinary tract and release eggs that are passed in the person's pee. The presence of the parasite in the urinary tract can also lead to a bunch of nasty complications, including bloody urine, polyps, and ulcers. Furthermore, the parasite is considered a Group 1 carcinogen and is a leading cause of bladder cancer

It might sound like a rare and obscure tropical disease, but schistosomiasis is remarkably common. Researchers believe that accounts of peeing blood and urinary infections from ancient Egypt most likely relate to Schistosoma haematobium. In fact, there was even a hieroglyph used to denote the disease that took the form of a dripping penis.

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