Hookworms are parasites in the ancylostomatidae family that infect the intestines. Although it is no longer the common condition it used to be in the United States, more than one in 10 people worldwide are carrying the nematodes that cause hookworm. Globally, hookworm infection is the second most disabling parasitic infection after malaria.
These parasites cause a type of anemia called ancylostomiasis and a skin condition known as ground itch. Ground itch is uncomfortable but not usually dangerous. However, iron deficiency can have serious consequences, including anxiety and irritability, sleepiness, menstrual irregularities, poor appetite, depression, and hair loss.
Hookworm infection is more likely in places with damp dirt, particularly sandy and loamy soil. Avoid walking around barefoot on those surfaces or in areas known to be infested. Use of untreated sewage or human waste as fertilizer can also encourage the growth of hookworm larvae, leading to infection.
People who have been infected should be treated, particularly children. School-based mass deworming programs have been found to be very cost-effective, an important factor in poorer areas of the world where the parasites are still common. Programs in the schools typically cost the equivalent of less than a dollar per child.
In addition, there are programs to help prevent the biggest factor in hookworm transmission in these areas: shoelessness. Because hookworms almost always enter the body through the soles of the feet, ensuring every child has shoes can go a long way towards slowing the spread of hookworm.
Recently, the Sabin Vaccine Institute and George Washington University started clinical trials of what would be the first hookworm vaccine.
“We hope that this trial will offer us the breakthrough we need to ultimately stop transmission of this parasite, especially among the world’s poorest,” said Dr. Jeff Bethony, a GWU microbiology professor who is part of the Human Hookworm Vaccine Initiative.
Another study is investigating a drug known as K11777. This is believed to deactivate enzymes that the parasite needs to digest the blood it takes in. In a study published Tuesday, K11777 completely cured hookworm infections in laboratory animals.