Can Parasites Help Cure Allergies?
Parasites have many talents. Some researchers believe that their curative abilities aren't limited to autoimmune diseases, like Crohn's disease and inflammatory bowel disease. Some intestinal worms are also believed to cure allergies, which share some notable characteristics with autoimmune diseases. Some people claim that our old friend the hookworm has the ability to cure everything from allergies to hay fever to asthma -- but your allergies would have to be pretty bad to knowingly infect yourself with blood-sucking worms.
A gentleman named Jasper Lawrence made worm therapy for allergies famous a few years ago. Suffering from debilitating asthma and allergies, Lawrence heard about the theory that hookworms could cure allergies, so he traveled to Africa and walked around with his shoes off in several open-air latrines. After successfully contracting hookworms (and probably a lot of other nasty bugs), Lawrence reported that his allergies had subsided, and he recently told the public radio program Radiolab that he hasn't had an asthma attack or allergy symptoms since his visit to Africa [source: Radiolab].
Convinced that hookworms are the answer to the world's allergies and asthma, Lawrence -- who isn't a doctor -- returned to North America and began shipping orders of hookworms to allergy sufferers, delivered in the form of a patch, for about $3,000 per treatment. But when the Food and Drug Administration caught wind of Lawrence's little side project, he fled to Mexico and then flew to England, where he was born [source: Adams].
Lawrence's story is rather gross and definitely a bit sad, but the underlying fact is that intestinal worms might provide important clues about how allergies work. Because of new research, as well as personal stories like Jasper's, the hygiene theory, -- which states that cleanliness and the lack of childhood exposure to bacteria and parasites leads to increased incidents of allergies and autoimmune diseases -- is gaining wider acceptance [source: Baker]. Several different studies are currently underway to look at how parasites like hookworms might be able to cure allergies and asthma, but nobody has definitively proven that hookworms are the answer.