August 3, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

While researching tropical diseases, Prof. Zvi Bentwich an Israeli medical doctor, noticed an unusual correlation between the health of AIDS and tuberculosis patients, and those who had intestinal worms.

Not prevalent in Western countries such as America or Israel, intestinal worms (helminth infections) are causing an alarming number of health problems in developing nations, and Prof. Bentwich, from Ben Gurion University, is planning to change that.

Up to 50 percent of the entire African population suffers from the condition, and negative health effects include retardation of growth, anemia, poor cognitive functioning and liver disease. In Ethiopia, where Prof. Bentwich is focused, rates fluctuate from 30-50 percent, depending on whether or not a community is close to water rich areas, such as rivers, lakes, and swamps, he tells ISRAEL21c.

“I personally became interested and involved with the intestinal worms issue due to my ‘exposure’ to this problem through the Ethiopian immigrants [in Israel],” says Prof. Bentwich, who heads the Center for Emerging Tropical Diseases and AIDS at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

“As head of the largest AIDS center, I dealt with a large number of Ethiopian HIV and AIDS patients, and through them became aware of the magnitude of this problem in Ethiopia,” he says.

Prof. Bentwich hypothesizes that intestinal worms can affect the immune system in such a profound way that it has a major impact on one’s susceptibility to HIV and tuberculosis, and in coping with these diseases when they are already there.

Besides his and the center’s professional contribution, Israel does not have a unique or special involvement with intestinal worms. They became extinct with the establishment of the State in 1948.

As part of his mission, Prof. Bentwich plans to eradicate intestinal worms in Ethiopia. The doctor, who has been featured by the British broadcasting company, the BBC, for his work with the NGO, Doctors Without Borders, says the first stage of the operation will start this August and aims to deworm about 30,000 Ethiopians in three separate locations. After that, he plans to help a population of 250,000 people living in the town of Mekele, in northern Ethiopia, during the fall.

The program combines the provision and administration of antihelminthic medications, a few pills each time every four to six months, with an education program on how to improve hygiene and protect populations from exposure to the parasites.

According to Ben Gurion University, such activities are part of a worldwide struggle to eliminate Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD). The project is being funded by an international coalition of non-profit organizations.

“NTDs are one of the most evident hallmark signs of poverty and neglect, significantly contributing to the persistence of this situation in a very large number of countries in Africa, Asia and South America,” says Prof. Bentwich. “Though responsible for serious morbidity, and affecting general growth and mental abilities, they have been largely neglected by the Western developed countries, since they are practically nonexistent there.”

Prof. Bentwich is leading Ben Gurion University initiative as an international partner in the Global Network for the fight against NTDs (GNNTD) to help populations across Africa. “It is now the time for Israel, which is among the most developed and rich nations, to help the poor and the neglected,” he concludes, while welcoming interested parties from around the world to join in the fight.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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