Lymphatic filariasis, considered globally as a neglected tropical disease, is a parasitic disease caused by microscopic, thread-like worms. The adult worms only live in the human lymph system. The lymph system maintains the body’s fluid balance and fights infections. Lymphatic filariasis is spread from person to person by mosquitoes.
People with the disease can suffer from lymphedema and elephantiasis and in men, swelling of the scrotum, called hydrocele. Lymphatic filariasis is a leading cause of permanent disability worldwide. Communities frequently shun and reject women and men disfigured by the disease. Affected people frequently are unable to work because of their disability, and this harms their families and their communities.
The elimination of lymphatic filariasis in the Americas is one of CDC’s Winnable Battles.
The standard method for diagnosing active infection is the identification of microfilariae in a blood smear by microscopic examination. The microfilariae that cause lymphatic filariasis circulate in the blood at night (called nocturnal periodicity). Blood collection should be done at night to coincide with the appearance of the microfilariae, and a thick smear should be made and stained with Giemsa or hematoxylin and eosin. For increased sensitivity, concentration techniques can be used.
Serologic techniques provide an alternative to microscopic detection of microfilariae for the diagnosis of lymphatic filariasis. Patients with active filarial infection typically have elevated levels of antifilarial IgG4 in the blood and these can be detected using routine assays.
Because lymphedema may develop many years after infection, lab tests are most likely to be negative with these patients.
Patients currently infected with the parasite
Diethylcarbamazine (DEC) is the drug of choice in the United States. The drug kills the microfilaria and some of the adult worms. DEC has been used world-wide for more than 50 years. Because this infection is rare in the U.S., the drug is no longer approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and cannot be sold in the U.S. Physicians can obtain the medication from CDC after confirmed positive lab results. CDC gives the physicians the choice between 1 or 12-day treatment of DEC (6 mg/kg/day). One day treatment is generally as effective as the 12-day regimen. DEC is generally well tolerated. Side effects are in general limited and depend on the number of microfilariae in the blood. The most common side effects are dizziness, nausea, fever, headache, or pain in muscles or joints.
DEC should not be administered to patients who may also have onchocerciasis as DEC can worsen onchocercal eye disease. In patients with loiasis, DEC can cause serious adverse reactions, including encephalopathy and death. The risk and severity of the adverse reactions are related to Loa loa microfilarial density.
The drug ivermectin kills only the microfilariae, but not the adult worm; the adult worm is responsible for the pathology of lymphedema and hydrocele.
Some studies have shown adult worm killing with treatment with doxycycline (200mg/day for 4–6 weeks).
Patients with clinical symptoms
Lymphedema and elephantiasis are not indications for DEC treatment because most people with lymphedema are not actively infected with the filarial parasite.
To prevent the lymphedema from getting worse, patients should ask their physician for a referral to a lymphedema therapist so they can be informed about some basic principles of care such as hygiene, exercise and treatment of wounds.
Patients with hydrocele may have evidence of active infection, but typically do not improve clinically following treatment with DEC. The treatment for hydrocele is surgery.
Prevention & Control
The best way to prevent lymphatic filariasis is to avoid mosquito bites. The mosquitoes that carry the microscopic worms usually bite between the hours of dusk and dawn. If you live in an area with lymphatic filariasis:
- sleep in an air-conditioned room or
- sleep under a mosquito net
Between dusk and dawn
- wear long sleeves and trousers and
- use mosquito repellent on exposed skin.
Another approach to prevention includes giving entire communities medicine that kills the microscopic worms — and controlling mosquitoes. Annual mass treatment reduces the level of microfilariae in the blood and thus, diminishes transmission of infection. This is the basis of the global campaign to eliminate lymphatic filariasis.
Experts consider that lymphatic filariasis, a neglected tropical disease (NTD), can be eradicated and a global campaign to eliminate lymphatic filariasis as a public health problem is under way. The elimination strategy is based on annual treatment of whole communities with combinations of drugs that kill the microfilariae. As a result of the generous contributions of these drugs by the companies that make them, tens of millions of people are being treated each year. Since these drugs also reduce levels of infection with intestinal worms, benefits of treatment extend beyond lymphatic filariasis. Successful campaigns to eliminate lymphatic filariasis have taken place in China and other countries.