According to WHO, at least 50 million people are infected by a worm that can cause severe headache and epileptic seizures. Africa, in particular, is struggling with this tapeworm disease. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen are now testing the digital learning program The Vicious Worm, which they have developed with artwork and video.
Tips for preparing a pork chop and good principles for free-range livestock are some of the scenes in a new digital learning program that researchers from the University of Copenhagen have developed and want to distribute using USB flash drives in a number of African countries.
“Prevention is a key factor for limiting the spread of the disease caused by Taenia solium tapeworm, and this is where our new digital tool will play a role,” says Maria Vang Johansen, Professor at the Department of Veterinary Disease Biology, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. Together with the research group in parasitic zoonoses she has developed The Vicious Worm through the EU-projects ICONZ and ADVANZ.
Scans from a patient. Photo: Ted Nash
Epilepsy treated like evil spirits
Pig production is a rapidly growing industry in many African countries, resulting in new jobs and growth. Unfortunately, it also results in an increase in the spread of tapeworm that has pigs as intermediate host. The tapeworm is not dangerous for pigs, but is potentially dangerous when transferred to humans.
“Brain scans on epileptic patients in Africa often reveal signs of parasites in the form of approx. 1 cm large spherical cysts in the brain,” says Maria Vang Johansen, who describes the documentation for a correlation between epilepsy and the cysts as very convincing. The disease, which may cause epilepsy or severe headache, is called neurocysticercosis.
Epilepsy is three times more widespread in Africa than in Europe, and is also a far more stigmatizing disease.
“Often young women with epilepsy cannot get married, and the disease is frequently treated like curses or evil spirits by the traditional healer," says Maria Vang Johansen.
The right treatment would be a combination of anti-helminthic and anti-epileptic treatment, she explains.
The E-learning programme for example adresses the issue on creating a pig farm but minimizing risk.
Help us- test the new tool
The Vicious Worm is free to use, and the beta version is available at advanz.org from 4th of April. The research group is hoping for many testers and is at the same time performing tests in Tanzania.The program has different points of access for laypeople, healthcare professionals such as doctors and veterinarians as well as public authorities and other decision-makers.
The next step is to develop the learning module as an app for smartphones, and the research group is currently trying to raise extra funding.
“Over a period of years, Africa has changed a lot with the dissemination of internet access and smartphones, so it makes sense to address the problem using this technology,” says project coordinator Christopher Saarnak, The Department of Veterinary Disease Biology.