THE PARASITE PARADOX
Intestinal organisms can be a trigger for troubling health issues. But new research finds they can also help the body heal, especially from autoimmune diseases.
In 1999, Judy Smith (not her real name) was a single mother in Chappaqua, N.Y., struggling to care for her young autistic son. For years, he had spent much of his time in the basement, gyrating on a swing. Chronic gastrointestinal issues made his stomach so distended he resembled a malnourished child; his affect was so flat he seemed absent from the world.
When doctors pushed for a stomach feeding tube, his mother pushed back, putting her son on an elimination diet instead. It reduced his digestive discomfort, but his malaise and apathy remained.
Dissatisfied with this partial improvement, Smith began exploring another approach. She had read a piece in the New York Times about helminthic therapy, a treatment that uses carefully calibrated doses of intestinal worms to address inflammatory disorders.
The researchers believed a lack of exposure to worms and other so-called parasitic hazards might be tied to the rise in allergies, autoimmune diseases, and other chronic ills. Autoimmunity (which includes more than 90 diseases) is the third most common illness in the United States after cancer and heart disease.