By: Stephanie Larson
Moises Velasquez-Manoff’s “The Parasitic Underground,” published in The New York Times Magazine, is the latest entry into the parasite’s narrative shift. The article explores the phenomenon known as “re-parasitizing.” The act of re-parasitizing is exactly what it sounds like; individuals living in regions where parasites have been largely eradicated intentionally seek out environments or practitioners that will provide them with exposure to parasitic entities. The parasite of choice in re-parasitizing are microscopic worms known as helminths and include well-known species like hookworm and whipworm.
Individuals who practice re-parasitizing believe lack of exposure to these entities has caused an uptick in chronic inflammatory and immune disorders. They cite evidence that developed nations, where parasites have largely been eradicated, have higher rates of inflammatory and immune disorders compared to developing nations where individuals are more likely to experience parasitic infection. According to Velasquez-Manoff, individuals who intentionally seek out helminth treatment are desperate for relief from their chronic conditions. They have been through numerous doctors and treatments without success. They are looking for relief wherever they can find it, even if that means allowing a helminth to burrow through their skin.
It should come as no surprise that in a post-RSC environment the notion of re-parasitizing would raise a number of questions. Perhaps most notably, the legal and ethical implications of intentionally infecting oneself with parasites. According to Velasquez-Manoff, the movement should be seen as a “grass-roots response to an epidemic.” Intentional parasitic infection has not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Thus, while some doctors and scientists have shown support for, and are even part of the re-parasitizing movement, the treatment cannot be legally administered in the United States. This has led individuals to buy helminths online, visit clinics in Mexico, or even self-fund trips to developing nations that still experience high rates of parasite infection so they can contract a helminth in its native environment.
As writers, scientists, doctors, and patients continue to investigate re-parasitizing, the helminth’s narrative has begun to slowly shift. While using parasites as treatment has yet to be approved by mainstream medical and scientific communities (or the general public for that matter), the “treatment” is still out there and being accessed by individuals. Velasquez-Manoff, who experimented with intentional hookworm infection while writing his article warned against discounting any reported benefits of re-parasitizing as wishful thinking by individuals desperate for relief. While he noted that he failed find relief from his own chronic conditions through hookworm infection, Velasquez-Manoff speculates that perhaps “parasites treat a subset of patients with autoimmune and allergic diseases, and that through self-experimentation, sick people are figuring out who’s in that group.” Until more experiments can be conducted, this shift in the parasite’s narrative should be used as an opportunity to open up a conversation between health providers and patients about alternative treatments and their implications for individuals and the public at large.
1. Ettling, John. The Germ of Laziness: Rockefeller Philanthropy and Public Health in the New South. Harvard University Press, 2000.