Dracunculiasis (commonly known as guinea-worm disease), is a parasitic infection caused by drinking stagnant water contaminated with parasite-infected water fleas of the cyclops genus, according to Live Science
. It can take 10 to 14 months for symptoms to develop.
The first symptoms a person feels is usually a painful burning as the female worm forms a blister in the skin, usually on a lower limb. The unbearable pain is where the description "fiery Serpent" originates. Once this happens, it can take up to three weeks for the long, thread-like worm to emerge. The worms can get up to 60 to 100 centimeters (24 to 39 inches) in length.
Guinea worms have apparently been around for a very long time. In 1970, a calcified guinea worm was found in the stomach of an Egyptian mummy. Possibly the earliest reference to guinea worms can be found in the Old Testament in Numbers (21:4–9): "And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died."
According to the World Health Organization
, in the 1980s, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases of dracunculiasis in 20 countries worldwide. In 2016, the number of cases globally dropped to 25, the lowest in history, and included just three countries: (Chad (16), South Sudan (6) and Ethiopia (3)).
The 14th-century pilgrim, St. Roch
A 15th-century altarpiece on display at the Pinacoteca di Brera (Painting Gallery), located in southern Italy's Puglia region is the centerpiece of a study to be published in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Infection.
The painting is considered a rare example of late Gothic painting in Puglia and represents St. Roch, a 14th-century pilgrim who was said to have healed victims of the bubonic plague and came down with the plague himself. "Indeed, St. Roch is typically represented with a bubo on the upper thigh," paleopathologist Raffaele Gaeta, at the University of Pisa, Italy, told Live Science.
The anonymous painter portrays St. Roch as a bearded, blond-haired man with a swelling on his left thigh, plainly seen because his stocking is rolled down. "However, the altarpiece adds a new, realistic detail: a white, thin filament comes out of the lesion and almost reaches the knee," Gaeta said.
Gaeta thinks that art historians have wrongly identified the filament as a long drop of pus running down St. Roch's leg from the infected wound. Gaeta thinks the artist wanted to add something he had seen on a traveler arriving in Bari, possibly coming from a place where the worm was endemic. "He then added the long and thin white filament that comes out of the leg as a note of extreme realism."
"We believe instead that the painter portrayed an ancient case of dracunculiasis, an infectious disease caused by a nematode worm, the Dracunculus medinensis, well known in antiquity," Gaeta and colleagues Fabrizio Bruschi and Valentina Giuffra wrote in their study.