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Schistosomiasis parasite egg found dating back thousands of years

Proof that mankind has suffered from Schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease for thousands of years has been found in a 6,200 year old grave, according to a paper published in the online journal Lancet Infectious Diseases Friday.

Grave found in Northern Syria near Euphprates River
The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/S1473-3099(14)70794-7

Archeaologists from Cambridge, Cyprus and Chicago made the discovery after opening a grave site in northern Syria in a prehistoric town near the Euphrates River. Scientists say they found an ancient parasite egg in the pelvic region of a skeleton, where the intestines and bladder would have been.

The Schistosomiasis egg discovered in Syria is older than the one found in Egyptian mummies from 5,200 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that agricultural irrigation was used as far back as 7,500 years ago, and the finding of a Schistosomiasis egg suggests the parasitic disease was spread without people knowing the cause, or what it was.

Scientists say the use of new farming techniques like irrigation meant that people waded in the water for long periods of time, an ideal way for parasites to infect humans. Schistosomiasis is a water-borne flatworm disease.

Gil Stein, a professor of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Chicago, one of the report's authors wrote in an email, "The invention of irrigation was a major technological breakthrough (but) it had unintended consequences. A more reliable food supply came at the cost of more disease."

The life cycle of the Schistosomiasis parasite starts in the body of a fresh-water snail. The tiny worms are carried by the snails, and after being excreted into warm fresh water, they will burrow into humans, most often the feet. After they grow into adult worms, they end up living in the bladder, kidneys, intestines and elsewhere in the body, sometimes for years.

The parasites can make a person, especially a child, very sick. Symptoms include fever, rash, abdominal pain, vomiting and paralysis of the legs. The disease can cause kidney failure and even bladder cancer.

Over 200 million people worldwide suffer from Schistosomiasis today, yet it is an easily treatable disease. This disease ranks second in the world behind malaria, in its effects on the socio-economic and public health importance of the regions where it is endemic.

Stein said there was evidence that wheat and barley was grown in the area where the graves were found, and the use of irrigation may have also been the cause of outbreaks of other water-born diseases such as malaria because of the stagnant water pools which are great for mosquitoes to breed.

Piers Mitchell, another study author from the University of Cambridge said the advent of better farming methods, including irrigation systems was the reason this parasitic disease spread across Mesopotamia, a region that runs along the Tigris-Euphrates river system that is now part of modern day Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey.

Mitchell said the impact from parasitic diseases such as Schistosomiasis would have affected the physical productivity of people infected with the disease. He pointed out that "We would expect these consequences in ancient peoples to have had a significant impact upon early civilisations in the region."

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