Caused by parasitic filarial worms, this disease is a very rare condition and can spread from person to person with the aid of mosquitoes. This disease is typically characterized by the thickened skin and grossly enlarged or swelled body parts, affecting the lymph nodes and lymph vessels. The patient's leg may swell up like that of an elephant. Hence, the name of the disease. Although this infection is uncommon in certain parts of the world, it is endemic in places like Africa and other topical countries including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc.
Symptoms of elephantiasis most prominently noted is the swelling of body parts. Skin becomes stiff, tough and bulky in legs, genitals, breasts, arms et cetera. Initial allergic symptoms include fever, chills, sweating, headaches, body pain, bone and joint pain, vomiting, abscesses, skin ulcers, tiredness, and a usual feeling of ill health.
Treatments for lymphatic filariasis depends on the geographic location of the endemic area. Overall, the treatment of this disease includes two main sectors- treatment of active Filarial infection and lymphatic swelling. Filarial infection can be ceased with the use of medicines, mostly antibiotics. Additional treatment, that is, surgical operations may be required to treat the swellings.
Before treatment, this disease needs to be diagnosed. The doctor usually prescribes medical tests in order to check the presence of roundworms in the bloodstream. These tests are usually done at night because then these worms are active. After diagnosis, doctors prescribe medicines, mostly antibiotics in order to treat the infection by filaris mosquitoes. Medicines include antiparasitic drugs, such as diethylcarbamazine (DEC), mectizan, and albendazole (Albenza). At times , DEC in combination with a medicine called ivermectin is also used and gives best results when used in a long term basis. These drugs are taken once on a yearly basis. In extreme cases, surgical operations may be performed. These operations are reconstructive surgery for the affected areas. In severe cases, the lymphatic tissues are removed. It is to be kept in mind that successful treatment of the active parasite will lessen the symptoms but the swelling remains lifelong.
Apart from this, regular treatments and care for this parasitic disease include maintaining a good hygiene to clean the affected areas, exercising according to the doctor’s directions and indications, washing and drying the swollen areas on a daily basis, keeping the affected areas elevated.
People with symptoms of muscle thickening and stiffening along with chills and fever must consult a doctor and get the necessary physical tests done. When the presence of parasite filaris in the blood is affirmed by blood tests, the patients become eligible for the treatment of elephantiasis.
Sometimes similar symptoms may be shown by some other problems. In such cases, people first need to find the root cause and then undergo the appropriate treatment. People with symptoms similar to elephantiasis, although not caused by filaris mosquito, do not need to take antiparasitic drugs.
Antibacterial and antiparasitic drugs like DEC is given in less dosage to children and pregnant women. Side effects of these medicins are in general limited and depend on the number of microfilariae in the blood. The most common side effects which are found in patients are dizziness, nausea, fever, headache, or pain in muscles or joints.
Once infected, the patient will have to undergo a lifelong treatment. In order to prevent further worsening of the situation, one must be cautious and avoid mosquitoes. People should wear full sleeve clothes and apply repellent to reduce the risk of mosquito bites. It is best to avoid travelling in areas where mosquitoes breed or are abundant. In case, one must carry or consume diethylcarbamazine (DEC), albendazole, and ivermectin as a preventative treatment before traveling.
Treatment of lymphatic filariasis can take a lifetime. There is no vaccine with the permanent cure of this disease and hence, the treatment goes on for a long time. Medicines are taken once a year. This disease can cause serious damage to the individual and thus, continuous treatment is mandatory, without which, the situation worsens.
Treatment of lymphatic filariasis is comparatively inexpensive. Administration of two anti-parasitic drugs to control lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) once a year can cost Rs 50- Rs 150. However, surgical operations cost more.
Medicines, that is, anti-worm drugs like albendazole and diethylcarbamazine (DEC) or albendazole and ivermectin are highly effective for killing the parasitic worms that cause lymphatic filariasis. However, there is no permanent cure for this disease. Even if these drugs kill majority of the parasites and lessen the symptoms, some parasites still remain in the blood. Hence, this treatment is not permanent.
Apart from the conventional anti parasitic medicines, there are other alternative ways to treat elephantiasis. These include homeopathic remedy and home remedy. Homeopathic treatment can help to reduce the frequency of Filariasis infection to certain extent. Homeopathy medicines is suggested only for controlling the infection of Filariasis but this treatment cannot cure or treat the swellings or lumps of muscles in hands, legs, genitals et cetera. Home remedies include consumption of Vitamin A rich foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots et cetera. These, along with some other herbs are essentially beneficial for elephantiasis. Cloves, black walnut oil, blending bringraj and oil, bhrahmi leaves etc can be applied as a mixture or paste on the swollen parts to provide relief to the patients.