Bilharzia is a disease caused by parasitic worms. The parasites that cause bilharzia live in some freshwater snails. There are two types – urinary and intestinal bilharzia.
Snails that carry the parasite live in fresh water. When your skin gets into contact with the water, you may be infected. Water becomes contaminated with the parasite’s eggs when infected people urinate of defecate in it. The eggs hatch and grow and multiply inside certain types of snails. The parasites leave the snails and enter the water. If you wade, swim, bath or wash in contaminated water the parasites can enter your skin. Within weeks the parasites grow into worms and stay in the blood vessels of your body. The females produce their eggs there. Some of the eggs travel to the bladder or intestine and are passed in your urine or stool.
Signs & Symptoms
Most people have no symptoms during the early stage of the infection, but you may:
- develop itchy skin or a rash within days.
- get a fever, chills, cough and muscle aches after one to two months.
The eggs in the intestine, liver or bladder cause inflammation or scarring. Children can develop anaemia, malnutrition and learning difficulties. After years of infection the parasite can damage the liver, intestine, lungs and bladder.
Urinary bilharzia is present in most of Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal and in limited areas in the Eastern Cape (Transkei). Intestinal bilharzia has a limited distribution. It is present in the eastern parts of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.
- Avoid wading or swimming in fresh water where bilharzia is present. Swimming in chlorinated water is safe.
- Drink safe water. Do not drink directly from dams, rivers or streams.
There are safe and effective drugs to treat bilharzia. Inform your healthcare provider if you have been in contact with water in a risk area.