More than one billion people in the world are infected with parasitic worms — that’s one in six people on the planet — a problem that’s been neglected for many years. A new interdisciplinary team led by researchers at the University of Calgary is applying knowledge about parasitic worms in livestock to help understand the spread of the parasites in humans, their emerging drug resistance as well as look for new drugs to treat and control them.

Ascaris Image/CDC

Parasitic worms, which includes hookworms, ascaris and filarial nematodes, have always infected humans in the developing world. The World Health Organization classifies the problem as “neglected tropical diseases.” Over the years, there has been far more research into controlling the ubiquitous parasitic worms in livestock, says John Gilleard, associate dean (research) and professor of parasitology in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. “We are hoping to apply the molecular tests similar to those we use in livestock parasites to human parasites in the developing world,” he says.

The agriculture industry has been heavily dependent for decades on the large-scale use of drugs to treat livestock infected with parasitic worms, but these parasites are now becoming increasingly resistant to the drugs. “In the last five to 10 years a consortium of agencies and companies, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and WHO, have really ramped up the use of drugs to control these parasite infections in humans around the world,” says Gilleard. “So we’re now starting to use anti-parasitic drug treatments in humans on a similar scale to that used in livestock for many years. This makes the emergence of drug resistant parasites in children in the developing world a real concern.”

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