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Can worms kill children as claimed in this viral message?

Photo Credit: scibraai.co.za/ 3 mins read

Claim: A viral WhatsApp message encourages parents to deworm their children, implying that not doing so could lead to sudden death.

This message is misleading. While deworming children is essential, not doing so cannot (alone, without other factors) cause sudden death as depicted in the message.

Full Text

Deworming, according to Gi Doc is “the process of expelling intestinal worms or parasitic worms from the body by administering an anthelmintic medicine/drug.” Anthelmintic medicines/drugs are simply medications used to eliminate worms from the body. Deworming is also known as worming, drenching or dehelmintization.

Worms are known as helminth parasites; they are of various types (like roundworms, tapeworms or flukes) and they affect humans (children/adults) as well as animals. Medical experts, therefore, encourage regular deworming to eliminate worms.

Worms can be transmitted into the body by playing in the sand, through contact with worm infested poop, eating raw or infected food, not washing hands before eating, walking barefooted and not maintaining good hygiene.

Worm infestation can affect individuals’ health and lead to serious complications, but can worm infestation cause sudden death?

Verification

A WhatsApp message tells the story of how a Nigerian baby died at a general hospital due to worm infestation. The message then encourages residents of Oyo State in South West Nigeria to partake in the state government’s deworming exercise.

Screenshot of the beginning of the WhatsApp message
Screenshot of the end of the WhatsApp message

The second to the last paragraph in the message claims that Oyo State was having a deworming exercise on that day (the day the copied message was posted) which was July 13, 2021. Dubawa searched online. Although there was information about deworming exercises in Oyo State, they were for previous years.

Screenshot of findings from Google search

This implies that the WhatsApp message might have been a recycled message from previous years.

To ascertain the authenticity of the medical claims in the message, Dubawa reached out to two Consultant Public Health physicians. 

Dr. Doyin Ogunyemi, Consultant Public Health Physician and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Community Health and Primary Care, Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), told Dubawa that the claims are exaggerated. 

Deworming, Dr. Ogunyemi said, is important as it helps eliminate worms that, if left unchecked, “could cause stomach pains, fatigue, weakness, bloody stool, itching anus and signs of stunting and malnutrition. In severe cases, it may lead to intestinal obstruction requiring surgery” but worms on their own cannot lead to sudden death. She said what is likely to occur “is death occurring from complications of severe anaemia and intestinal obstruction, and these occur over a period of time and are very unlikely to cause death as depicted in the message.”

Dr. Nasir Ariyibi, a Consultant Public Health Physician and the Medical Director of Lagos State University Health Centre, affirmed Dr. Ogunyemi’s position, noting that “WhatsApp stories are usually designed to cause panic while claiming to offer advice.” Dr. Ariyibi noted that the story does not add up and while doctors may note “likely cause of death,” they are unlikely to do so in the unprofessional manner depicted in the story.

Dr. Ariyibi noted that worm infestation can also “cause schistosomiasis, blood in urine and some other forms of skin infections.” Schistosomiasis is a disease caused by freshwater parasitic worms that can enter the body and travel to different parts like the kidney and liver and cause great discomfort. 

Dr. Ariyibi is also of the opinion that worm infestation (if not treated over a long time) can lead to serious complications, and it is those serious complications (if untreated) that can lead to death, “so it is not a linear process of worm infestation simply causing sudden death.”

However, Dr. Ariyibi encouraged Nigerians to deworm themselves and children about twice a year or at least once a year and maintain good personal and environmental hygiene to prevent worm infestation, its complications and other diseases. 

Conclusion

Regular deworming is encouraged as well as good hygiene, and worm infestation, if not treated early enough, could lead to serious complications. However, worm infection cannot simply lead to death as depicted in the WhatsApp story.

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