Elephantitis or Elephantiasis is a disease which is pretty is close to its name, characterized by thickening of the skin and underlying tissue. It is a gross and mostly visible enlargement of arms, legs and genitals to that of (seemingly) elephant size, but can also be seen in the trunk, head, breast as well as other body parts. This is a lymphatic system disease which affects almost 120 million people worldwide. It is mostly prevalent in tropical areas. Elephantitis may cause the thickening of these body areas up to three times the normal diameter. This is a filariasis or parasitic disease.
It may take years to diagnose this disease, because the early symptoms are common with many other diseases especially in its early stage. As it advances there will be pain, headaches, vomiting and other discomforts as well as enlargement of body parts.
Causes of Elephantitis
The cause of this disease is simple in theory, but actually quite complex. Thread-like parasitic worms such as Wuchereria bancrofti, Brugia malayi and B. timori are transmitted by mosquitoes; until they mature as adult parasites living in the human lymphatic system, where they obstruct the associated lymphatic vessels they seem to lie dormant in the body. It is not definitely known if the swelling is caused by the parasites themselves or by the immune system’s response to the worm. The Wuchereria bancrofti, or thread worm, growing in the patients’ lymph nodes, causes Elephantitis. The body reacts with inflammation, trying to slow down the flow of lymphatic fluid in the lymph vessels.
Treatment for Elephantitis
Treatment of this disease is not easy. Current drugs for Elephantitis can kill the worm larvae, or microfilaria, but have no affect on the adult worms and also may have serious side-effects. The drug Diethylcarbamazine (DEC) will kill the worms slowly, if at all, but if all the adult worms are not killed the remaining worms may reproduce. Therefore several courses of the DEC treatment may be warranted to rid the patient of these parasites. Clinical trials by the Liverpool School of tropical Medicine reported in 2005 that an eight week course of the antibiotic drug doxycycline almost completely eliminated microfilariaemia.
Another drug being used is Ivermectin which is greatly effective in killing microfilariae (pleural) but the results are still being investigated. Surgery could also be performed to remove the fibrous tissue, draining the swelled areas and also removing the dead worms.
Because Elephantitis is still not appearing on the Neglected Tropical Disease lists, there is little research being done, but scientists are working on the genes in hope of finding a cure with new drugs and vaccines.
According to research and documentation for the Carter Center Health Programs, the elimination of mosquitoes will eventually wipe out this dreaded disease. This organization is in part responsible for eliminating Elephantitis in economy stressed nations such as Nigeria and other African nations. Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline have donated medicines, and long lasting insecticidal bed nets. More than 26 million treatments have been provided and mosquito infection rates have dropped by nearly 90 percent. According the World Health Organization, by the year 2020, this disease should be eliminated.