Hookworm, a disease associated with extreme poverty and triggered by exposure to contaminated water and/or raw sewage is on the rise in Alabama. A disease commonly found in the developing world of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, is thriving in the richest country on the planet. A new study conducted by scientists in Houston has lifted the lid on a disease that is affecting 1 out of 3 people in a poor area of Alabama.
Hookworm, a gastrointestinal parasite that was thought to have been eradicated from America several decades ago, is making an unprecedented comeback. The study found that America allows poor segments of its population to face poverty-related illnesses at rates comparable to some of the poorest nations in the world.
The study, conducted by the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine found that thirty-four percent of the people living in Lowndes County, Alabama tested positive for genetic traces of hookworm. It is a county that has an extensive history of enforcing racial discrimination and inequality against the Black residents in the area.
The parasite usually enters the body through the soles of bare feet and makes its way to the small intestines, where it attaches and sucks the blood of the carrier. The parasite can languish in the body for months or even years, and causes the infected person to suffer iron deficiencies, anemia, weight loss, tiredness, and impaired mental function.
The disease was widespread in the American south for a good portion of the 20th century but was thought to be eradicated by the 1980’s. The study found that none of the people that had evidence of the disease had ever traveled outside of America and therefore, the disease was always present in their communities. The study pointed to the fact that the area where the sampling was done had shockingly inadequate waste treatment.
A staggering 73% of the people surveyed said they were exposed to raw sewage washing back into their homes because of faulty septic tanks or waste pipes that became clogged after torrential rainstorms.
Catherine Flowers, who inspired the scientists to conduct the study said, “Hookworm is a 19th-century disease that should by now have been addressed, yet we are still struggling with it in the United States in the 21st century. Our billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates fund water treatment around the world, but they don’t fund it here in the US because no one acknowledges that this level of poverty exists in the richest nation in the world.”
It is estimated that upwards of 12 million people in the southern United States possibly has or will be exposed to hookworm disease in the 21st century. Doctor Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College said, “This is the inconvenient truth that nobody in America wants to talk about. These people live in the southern United States, and nobody seems to care; they are poor, and nobody seems to care; and more often than not they are people of color, and nobody seems to care.”