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What is schistosomiasis?

Schistosomiasis, known as bilharzia or ‘snail fever’, is a neglected tropical disease caused by parasites released by freshwater snails.

A volunteer places medication in a man's outstretched hand.

Infection occurs when the parasite’s larvae penetrate a person’s skin during contact with infested water, often through fishing, swimming, bathing and washing clothes.

Once inside the human body, the larvae develop into adult worms and the eggs they lay can become trapped in the body’s tissues.

At first, there are often no symptoms of schistosomiasis, but the parasite can remain in the body for many years and can cause more serious problems. This NTD can cause itchy rashes, abdominal pain and diarrhoea, and can lead to serious long-term problems affecting the digestive, urinary, respiratory and nervous systems.

Schistosomiasis is particularly common in sub-Saharan Africa, and mainly occurs in poorer communities that don’t have access to clean drinking water or adequate sanitation. Unfortunately, poverty is both a cause and consequence of the poor health caused by schistosomiasis. In children the disease can cause anaemia and stunted growth, and can affect their ability to learn. Many infected adults are unable to work, leading to economic hardship.

206 million
people globally needed treatment for schistosomiasis in 2016
200,000
people a year in sub-Saharan Africa die from the disease
52
countries require large-scale preventative treatment

How is schistosomiasis treated?

A group of villagers wait to receive their medication from the local community drug distributor, who hands them a cup containing the tablets.

Medication

To stop the spread of infection, praziquantel tablets, donated by pharmaceutical group Merck Serono, are distributed to people at risk.

A volunteer community distributor.

Volunteers

The medication is administered via teachers and volunteers known as community-directed distributors (CDDs), who work locally.

A boy and his baby brother wait to be given medication to treat NTDs in Nigeria.

Combined treatment

Schistosomiasis is often treated alongside other neglected tropical diseases such as intestinal worms and river blindness.

What we’re doing

Sightsavers is taking steps to control schistosomiasis in the countries in which we work.

Our schistosomiasis treatment programmes specifically target school-age children and adults considered at risk, such as fishermen, living in endemic regions. In areas with very high rates of infection, entire communities may be treated. Sightsavers and partners also encourage non-drug-based practices such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives.

In 2018, Sightsavers and partners provided more than 6.5 million treatments for schistosomiasis across Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Guinea Bissau and Guinea. We also trained more than 218,000 local volunteers to distribute medication  to treat a range of neglected tropical diseases, including schistosomiasis.

Find out about other diseases we treat

Neglected tropical diseases

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