Thought Experiment "A"

Recently I found a little book on my bookshelf that I used to love. It's beat up and dogeared. It's called The Book of Questions by Gregory Stock, Ph.D. which came out in 1987. Basically it's full of thought experiments. I thought I'd pose them to you. I will put my initial answer and will eagerly look forward to your thoughts. If you think of any you'd like to have me ask everyone, email me.

So here's Question A, which is from me, not the book:

There is a guy in Britain, I think, who had ulcerative colitis.
There is interesting research into places in third world countries where people don't get this kind of thing, or allergies for that matter.

They have found that populations carry some sort of roundworm that lives in their guts there and it was thought that it conveys some sort of protection to the gut.

So this guy took a thousand roundworm eggs and swallowed them. He did it on his own but made sure his doctors knew it so they could monitor him. He had very quick and complete relief of his ulcerative colitis.

After awhile, maybe a year, he started getting symptoms again so he had his doctors test him and his roundworm population had decreased. So he took another 1500 eggs.

So here's the question. If you had ulcerative colitis (bloody diarrhea, horrible stomach pain, etc) would you swallow 1500 roundworm eggs?

If your child had it, would you have them swallow the roundworm eggs?

My answer:

I think if I were suffering, I'd do it, but I'd be totally creeped out and would probably feel like I could feel them in my gut moving around. It would be really hard for me. Eesh! Once I had relief, I think I'd pat my belly and thank them.

What about you? Would you ingest a specific type of parasite if it meant no allergies, or no painful colitis?


  1. Sophie LagacéMarch 8, 2011 at 5:35 AM

    Depending on the specific level of knowledge and the risk assessment, yes. We already have an entire ecosystem in our innards. But the level of assurance and information I'd require to add something that is not already part of that ecosystem would be pretty damn high, as for any experimental treatment.

  2. Yes, I agree with you, Sophie. I'd want to make very sure it was safe before I'd go ingesting a parasite on purpose.

  3. That's pretty much what I'd say. I'd add that I might be more willing to try it if there were a proven, relatively easy way to get rid of them again (like by taking some herbal extract; at least that works against a wide variety of tapeworms).

  4. I would. Like Sophie said, we already have 'parasites' in our bodies that 'work' in symbiosis.

    There story is an interesting one. I did know about this tribe in Africa infected with this type of worm. One noticed by human aid workers, they started treating people (children) of this tribe. Why? Because the worm had a negative effect on the average age these people could reach (I think it was they lived about 10 years or so shorter). Once treated, another negative side effect occurred: most people got all sort of allergies, where the tribe first was completely allergy free. A further study showed that these worms constantly produced some type of antihistamicum, a drug that blocks the receptors and thus prevents allergic reactions. In the end, the human aid organization stopped treating people for the worm and everyone got infected again. Why? Those last 10 years of their lives (remember they did have shorter life span!) did not in terms of 'quality of life' outweigh by a life with allergies. This was a rational choice.

    Neece: Send you a question by e-mail. A heafty one :)

  5. Good point, Frans. Yes, I'd want to know that I could easily get rid of them if necessary.

  6. Fascinating! It just goes to show how complex and connected everything is. I find it amazing.

    Yes, allergies suck. Mine are coming back with a vengeance already. Although when I asked people on Facebook if they were suffering too, several said they take allergy medicine all year round. They sure do make me miserable, at any rate.

  7. There is nothing to say that these worms were the cause of them living 10 years less... It is very doubtful at that, I'm sure there were far greater other influential factors for that.

    To the topic, I'd eat them, no problem. It's worth a try, and the actions to reverse are simple. Worms can be dealt with in under 3 days, sometimes with a single dosage of medicine. In comparison to other treatments, it's pretty much as safe as you can get.

  8. @ GM: It's a story I read a very very long time ago, so I repeat it from memory. I tried to find it on the web and could not find it. I admit, this is certainly not my expertise. Exactly true or not, my point is that a discussion about the quality of life is very important. Some have to choose between to live shorter in good health, or live longer, yet in discomfort.

    Anyway, still I found this interesting article about the hookworm (BBC is a reasonable source):

    And I found this one, which is quite an interesting research about the effects of malaria and hookwork infections:


  9. Good to know they would be easily gotten rid of if necessary.

  10. In my biology 2 class in college, we discussed how humans evolved with worms living in our guts and that modern medicine would skew that balance.