Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia (bill-HAR-zi-a), is a disease caused by parasitic worms. Infection with Schistosoma mansoni, S. haematobium, and S. japonicum causes illness in humans. Although schistosomiasis is not found in the United States, more than 200 million people are infected worldwide.
Infection occurs when your skin comes in contact with contaminated freshwater in which certain types of snails that carry schistosomes are living. Freshwater becomes contaminated by Schistosoma eggs when infected people urinate or defecate in the water. The eggs hatch, and if certain types of snails are present in the water, the parasites grow and develop inside the snails. The parasite leaves the snail and enters the water where it can survive for about 48 hours. Schistosoma parasites can penetrate the skin of persons who are wading, swimming, bathing, or washing in contaminated water. Within several weeks, worms grow inside the blood vessels of the body and produce eggs. Some of these eggs travel to the bladder or intestines and are passed into the urine or stool.
Within days after becoming infected, you may develop a rash or itchy skin. Fever, chills, cough, and muscle aches can begin within 1-2 months of infection. Most people have no symptoms at this early phase of infection. Eggs travel to the liver or pass into the intestine or bladder, causing inflammation or scarring. Children who are repeatedly infected can develop anemia, malnutrition, and learning difficulties. After years of infection, the parasite can also damage the liver, intestines, lungs, and bladder. Rarely, eggs are found in the brain or spinal cord and can cause seizures, paralysis, or spinal cord inflammation. Symptoms of schistosomiasis are caused by the body's reaction to the eggs produced by worms, not by the worms themselves.
See your health care provider. If you have traveled to countries where schistosomiasis is found and had contact with freshwater, describe in detail where and for how long you traveled. Explain that you may have been exposed to contaminated water.
Your health care provider may ask you to provide stool or urine samples to see if you have the parasite. A blood test has been developed and is available at CDC. For accurate results, you must wait 6-8 weeks after your last exposure to contaminated water before the blood sample is taken.
Safe and effective drugs are available for the treatment of schistosomiasis. You will be given pills to take for 1-2 days.
If you live in or travel to areas where schistosomiasis occurs and your skin comes in contact with freshwater from canals, rivers, streams, or lakes, you are at risk of getting schistosomiasis.
Content courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Schistosomiasis Fact Sheet.
Last Updated August 10, 2010
Last Reviewed August 10, 2010