LONDON (Reuters) - Millions of people in the developing world suffer needlessly from the disfiguring disease elephantiasis because they cannot afford treatment or are too embarrassed to seek it, researchers said on Wednesday.
Elephantiasis, marked by hideous swelling of the arms, legs, head, genitals or breasts, affects 40 million people, according to the World Health Organization, even though treatment in the early stages is relatively straightforward.
Researchers who studied the effect of the disease in Sri Lanka found that loss of earnings and the expense of treatment drove many into poverty.
In particular, the research suggested that health officials and aid groups were failing to address the fact that sufferers often chose more discreet but expensive private clinics in preference to more public free treatment.
“Households that were already on low incomes were pushed into near destitution, from which it is impossible to escape,” David Molyneux of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and colleagues wrote in the Public Library of Science on Wednesday.
“The social isolation from the stigma of the diseases caused emotional distress (and) delay in diagnosis and treatment, resulting in advancement of the disease beyond possible treatment.”
The condition, also known as lymphatic filariasis (LF), is caused by small, thread-like parasitic worms spread by mosquitoes that can live for years inside the human body and thrive in the human lymphatic system.
The researchers interviewed 60 people with different stages of LF out of an estimated 300,000 sufferers in Sri Lanka.
Many said they went to private clinics to avoid contact with others and the stigma of exposing their limbs in free clinics.
GlaxoSmithKline’s Albendazole and Merck’s Mectizan are two drugs used against the disease.
The disease also affected other family members, including children who had to drop out of school to make up for a parent unable to work, the researchers said.
Even if health officials succeed in eliminating transmission of the disease in Sri Lanka, hundreds of thousands of people will still require help for many years -- a scenario that the researchers said was similar throughout the developing world.
Editing by Kevin Liffey