Meeting the Little Dragon
by Lucy A. Snyder

Are you familiar with the Guinea worm? If one's ever been familiar with you, then you have my deepest sympathies. But if you've never heard of it before ... say hello to a new little friend!

The Guinea worm (Dracunculus medinensis) is one of the biggest reasons that you should boil your drinking water when visiting rural parts of Africa or India. Let's say you're trekking along a country road in the heat, enjoying the lovely landscape, and you spy a villager's buffalo trough around the time you realize you're really thirsty. The water looks clean enough, so you figure what the heck, and take a drink.

Mistaaaaake! You've just drunk a whole bunch of weensy-teensy crustaceans, copepods of the genus Cyclops. The little water fleas themselves never posed any threat to you (and they sure didn't want to die horribly being torn apart in the hydrochloric acid in your stomach). But they are infected with Dracunculus larvae, which emerge from your stomach intact, laughing at your puny hu-mon acidic defense system.

Once the larvae hit your small intestine, they burrow out of your guts and have a wormy orgy in your lymphatic system over the next year. The worm-guys die after sex, but the surviving females keep growing, growing, growing. They look like spaghetti -- if you normally go to restaurants where the pasta's two feet long -- and eventually decide to emerge.

And if you're the type who stoically ignores little aches and pains and consequently isn't much in touch with your body's more delicate workings ... that's when you'll start to notice that something horrible is happening to you. Dracunculus means "little dragon" and it earned its name because a person with an emerging Guinea worm feels like his or her flesh is on fire. For months.

The worm travels to your skin, usually in your legs or feet, but it could decide to pop out pretty much anyplace and I'll leave that to your imagination. The oh-so-very-pregnant worm comes out, and you get the worst blister you can imagine, which within a day or so bursts into an ulcer. And here's the really diabolical part: anybody with a Guinea worm ulcer is immediately filled with the urge to dunk his burning appendage in some nice, cool water. And the moment the ulcer touches water, the female poops out thousands and thousands of tiny larvae that then infest the water, looking like tasty treats to the poor copepods that, like you, don't know any better than to ingest things they shouldn't.

How do you get rid of a Guinea worm? If you have access to modern care, you might be able to kill the things with mebendazole and have your friendly neighborhood surgeon dig the really big worms out of your flesh. If you're stuck having to take care of it the old-fashioned way, you'll need to find a stick. You wind the emergent bit of the worm around the stick, veeery slooowly, because if the damn thing breaks off inside your flesh, you're going to get a hellacious infection from the soon-to-be-rotting parasite inside you.

So now you've got to wind the stick a little each day to try to get the worm out of you. And it's mind-bogglingly painful all the way, so you better hope the local druggist has something stronger than Advil.

Guinea worm infections are, thankfully, on the decline through public health education efforts in afflicted areas. Even if you don't have a pot to boil water in, something as simple as running the water through a few layers of cloth can filter out infected copepods (you'd still have to worry about stuff like dysentery and cholera, but hey, what's a little bloody diarrhea compared to wormy ulcers?)

The great thing -- for horror writers, anyhow -- is that the Guinea worm is only one of many, many very real creepy-crawlies you can bend to your literary purposes. The writers of the movie Alien noticed a tiny wasp that parasitically implants its eggs in caterpillars and ganked its life cycle to craft one of the most memorable monsters in movie history. Just imagine what you could do with a Guinea worm.

The Guinea worm has a lot of metaphoric possibilities. For instance, identity thieves remind me a whole lot of Guinea worms, and if you bank's policies are improperly developed, getting the parasitic bastards out of your life and your money refunded can take lots of slow, painful stick-winding.

See? You knew I'd work a computer safety reference in here someplace!

Until next time, stay warm, write well, protect your passwords, and don't eat or drink anything of questionable origin.


Lucy A. Snyder has a degree in biology, which she mainly uses to help people cut down on their snack consumption at parties. She's the author of the upcoming collection Sparks and Shadows and her work has appeared in publications such as Strange Horizons, Chiaroscuro, Masques V, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. You can learn more about her at her website.

 

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