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Unfiled March 20, 2003
Prince of Parasites: the Guinea Worm
The Guinea Worm

"If there's anything
in nature that might call
God's plan into
question, it's the Guinea
Worm." -- The Seattle

Are you carrying around some vestigial conviction that God is good, or that Nature loves you? We guarantee that our newest Schopenhauer Award nominee, the Guinea Worm, will fix that in one easy lesson.

We figured, why save the best for last? Why not introduce Exhibit A, our star witness, right away? And so, Ladies and Gentlemen: the Guinea Worm, a creature so horrific it led a reporter from the cheerible, happy-sappy Seattle Post-Intelligencer to question "God's plan."

Of course, the Guinea Worm can only shake your faith if you're thinking of God as a nice dad. If you share Schopenhauer's view that the God who made this Hell-Universe could only be a cosmic Sadist, getting acquainted with the Guinea Worm will only strengthen your faith. Either way, we promise that you'll never forget the day you met G. Worm.

Like so many Schopenhauer Award nominees, the Guinea Worm got its start in Africa. It's a big parasite, growing up to three feet long. By the time it pokes its head out of the victim's skin, it's as wide as a strand of spaghetti.

It's a slow developer, spending up to a year squirming through the victim's body. Europeans first learned of its existence when they saw people limping through African villages in obvious agony, holding long sticks which seemed to be attached to a white string emerging from a leg or arm.

Africans explained that these unlucky villagers had become hosts the Guinea Worm. The reason victims were walking around with the worm twirled around a stick was that the worm could only be coaxed out a few millimeters per day. Those who tried to pull it out soon died a terrible death: the worm's head came off, and its body died and putrefied inside the victim, who rotted while still alive.Since the Guinea Worm can be up to three feet long, the process of drawing it out of your body could take weeks.

Think of the horror of that first glimpse of the worm -- the blind white "spaghetti-like" tip poking out from your swollen flesh. Then imagine that instead of yanking it out and stomping it, as all your instincts urge you to do, you must cultivate your parasite, get to know it, persuade it to wind itself around a stick.

Then you must hobble around in pain, an object of loathing to everyone you know, while winding the worm around the stick a little more each day. The stick must stay close to you, waking and sleeping. If you drop it, the worm breaks off in your body and you die, putrefying from the inside out. If you are very patient and very lucky, you finally twirl the last coil of worm around the stick. Then you can kill it as you've been dreaming of doing for weeks.

But don't celebrate too soon. Because, as Africans explained to the European travellers, dozens of Guinea Worms often develop inside their victims at different rates. So a few hours after you've finally gotten rid of the first worm, you're likely to feel the first twinges of pain that mean another is getting ready to chew its way through your skin and greet the world.

The God who made this creature engineered it perfectly, making sure its victims would have no chance. Like the crab-facemask in Alien, it could not be removed without killing the patient. And like that crab-thing, it used the host's body as an incubator for its eggs.

But unlike the laughably inefficient Alien, which could only hatch one egg per human host, the Guinea Worm can produce millions of eggs per victim. And unlike the big, clumsy Aliens, the Guinea Worm starts its life in microscopic form -- invisible, undetectable, unstoppable.

It's a typically sly, cruel, intricate booby-trap, presicely the sort of elaborate maiming-machine the Sadist-God loves to tinker with. The Worm starts out as an egg so tiny that it lives in the gut of "water fleas," tiny crustaceans which swarm in African freshwater ponds and wells. The fleas themselves are harmless; but when an African villager drinks water infested with the fleas, the fleas are digested but the worm-eggs are intact, free to start chewing their way through the intestinal wall, migrating to the victim's limbs. When they're nice and fat and full of eggs, they make the final move, poking their blind snouts through the skin, sniffing for fresh water in which to deposit the next generation of worms.

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