Bilharzia, also known as schistosomiasis, may not be a familiar name to many, but this parasitic disease affects millions of people worldwide, particularly in areas with poor sanitation and limited access to clean water. Classified as a neglected tropical disease (NTD), bilharzia has far-reaching consequences that not only impact individuals but also hinder socioeconomic development in affected communities.

Caused by blood flukes, a type of flatworm, bilharzia is transmitted through freshwater contaminated with the parasites’ larvae. When a person comes into contact with infected water, the larvae can penetrate the skin and migrate to various organs, such as the liver, intestines, bladder, or reproductive organs, depending on the species. This can lead to a wide range of symptoms, including fever, fatigue, abdominal pain, blood in urine or stool, and, in severe cases, organ damage.

While bilharzia can be a chronic and debilitating condition, it often goes unrecognized and undiagnosed due to its non-specific symptoms, leading to delayed treatment and worsening health outcomes. In endemic areas, bilharzia is commonly seen as a normal part of life, which further contributes to the perpetuation of the disease cycle.

The consequences of bilharzia extend far beyond the physical health of individuals. It is a major impediment to economic development in affected regions. The disease primarily affects populations living in poverty, where sanitation and access to clean water resources are limited. Infected individuals often experience a reduced ability to work or attend school due to fatigue, pain, and other symptoms. Moreover, repeated infections can lead to chronic anemia and stunted growth in children, impacting their cognitive development and educational potential.

In addition to the individual and socio-economic burdens, bilharzia also poses substantial public health challenges. The infection can facilitate the transmission of other diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and malaria. This is because the immune response to bilharzia weakens the body’s defense mechanisms, making individuals more susceptible to co-infections. Furthermore, the lifecycle of bilharzia involves snails as intermediate hosts, resulting in the contamination of freshwater bodies. Interventions to control bilharzia often involve interventions that target the spread of the parasite, including the use of molluscicides and improvement in water sanitation infrastructure.

Efforts to combat bilharzia and other NTDs have gained attention in recent years, with the World Health Organization (WHO) setting targets for their elimination as public health problems. Public-private partnerships and collaborations between governments, nonprofits, and pharmaceutical companies have played a vital role in scaling up interventions, including mass drug administration (MDA) campaigns and the distribution of safe water sources.

However, despite progress, bilharzia remains a significant health burden, with an estimated 200 million people worldwide requiring treatment. It is crucial to sustain efforts to control and eliminate this neglected tropical disease, as its consequences are not only limited to individual suffering but also hinder broader development objectives.

Targeted funding for research, innovative solutions for water sanitation, and improved access to diagnostic tools are critical in the fight against bilharzia. Additionally, raising awareness among affected communities and healthcare providers can help identify cases earlier and ensure prompt treatment.

Bilharzia, a neglected tropical disease with far-reaching consequences, demands our attention and resources. By prioritizing its control and elimination, we can improve the health, well-being, and economic prospects of millions of individuals and communities worldwide.

About the author

Kwame Anane