Snail-Borne Disease Becoming Tractable

Computers may be the key to defeating a group of parasitic diseases that affect 240 million people in over 75 countries worldwide. Schistosomiasis is caused by a type of trematode carried by freshwater snails that are found in Asia, Africa, and South America—the disease is also called snail fever. Over 700 million people live in ares inhabited by the snails that are the most frequent carriers of schistosomiasis.

Evidence of schistosomiasis has been found in the bodies from ancient Nubia, an African kingdom that existed in what is now south Sudan until the 14th century. The climate causes natural mummification, preserving the people in death and giving researchers who are able to examine them valuable information about the lives of the people living in the kingdom. Nubian farmers used irrigation techniques to farm along the Nile River 1,500 years ago, bringing them into contact with the snails that carry the disease. As a result of this, we now know, around one in four of the farmers had signs of schistosomiasis.

Today, technology that alters the environment is still having an effect on schistosomiasis prevalence. Because of climate change, the range of the snails responsible for spreading snail fever is changing. The populations of snails in the parts of Africa where they had been causing disease are declining. However, here is some evidence to suggest that the snails are moving in to areas they hadn’t been in before, due to both temperature change and human activity. That means that the changes in the snails’ habitats may not necessarily translate into a lower incidence of parasitic colonization among humans.

However, computers around the world are helping to find a treatment for the disease. Computer modeling of biochemical processes helps medical researchers better predict how drugs—including drugs that may not even exist, but that can be readily synthesized—will interact with the body and with harmful microbes. Moreover, the computer can be programed to sift through the data from these virtual experiments and narrow down the results to what might actually work. Simple as this is to describe, however, it requires enormous amounts of processing resources. The solution is what is called distributed computing. Few privately or corporately owned computers use all the processing power available at all times. Distributed computing allows researchers to, with the owners’ permission, use the excess to help cure disease.

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