Elephantiasis is an infection of the skin and lymphatic system which manifests itself as a swelling and thickening of the skin and the underlying tissues. The infected areas are commonly the lower extremities and the genital area, particularly men’s scrotums. Elephantiasis can be found primarily in South-East Asia and Africa. There are currently 1.3 billion people who are affected by elephantiasis and 30% of that number can be found in Africa.
Generally, people are affected by one of two types of elephantiasis: Podoconiosis or Filariasis. Both cause obstructions in the lymphatic system which in turn leads to an accumulation of fluid in the lower limbs and genitals because the lymphatic fluids are no longer able to circulate and are forced downwards. Podoconiosis is also called non-filarial elephantiasis or Bigfoot disease and mainly affects people who walk or farm barefoot in red clay soil areas. The majority of these cases are located in higher elevations near inactive or active volcanoes where tiny particles of silica enter the skin of the foot. These silicate micro particles block those lymph nodes causing swelling to the foot and hardening of the skin. A simple way of preventing podoconiosis infection is to wear shoes and/or cover the dirt floor in the house. However, once someone is affected by the silicate particles, they can prevent further discomfort by washing the foot and lower leg daily with soap and water and using an antiseptic cream as the skin begins to tighten and crack.
Filariasis, on the other hand, is caused by parasitic, hair-like worms that infect and reproduce within the lymphatic system. This type of elephantiasis is transmitted by multiple bites of infected mosquitoes or black flies over time. Filarial elephantiasis has three stages: asymptomatic, acute, and chronic. A person who is infected but asymptomatic doesn’t show any outward physical manifestations of the disease. However, they still suffer damage of the lymph and immune systems and kidneys. In the acute stage, the person begins to see localized swelling of the lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes, and skin. This inflammation is caused by bacterial infection due to the lowered immune response and damaged lymphatic system. The chronic stage is the deformity of the affected limb either by tissue swelling or the thickening of the skin. This is the stage where, for a man, the scrotum becomes obviously filled with fluid and uncomfortable.
Because elephantiasis can lead to such obvious limb deformities, many people suffer from financial hardships as they no longer have stable sources of income and increased medical expenses.
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