Zagworm – The Demon Fungus

March 10, 2011

Zagworm (or Xagworm), although relatively unknown in the west, is becoming increasingly common in mainland Africa and is now the third leading cause of death in the Republic of Liberia after lung cancer and malaria.

Despite its name, Zagworm, like Ringworm, is actually a fungal parasite rather than an actual worm; the name comes from the track marks left by the fungus when breaking down tissue which resemble the pathways of burrowing worms.  These distinctive features, but the absence of worms themselves, coupled with the ‘possessed’ appearance of sufferers led the Motuans of Papua New Guinea to believe that the disease was caused by a demonic parasite; they therefore named it after the Motu word for Satan – ‘Xag’.

Transmission of the parasite is frighteningly easy and fairly unique.  Since the spores are so small, they can essentially hitch a ride on some larger strains of bacteria, making catching Zagworm as easy as catching the common cold, although far more dangerous without treatment.

Zagworm spores: Among the smallest fungal spores in the world

Once ingested the spores hatch into gametophytes and burrow into the body, generally settling on tendons or large areas of sinew, where they grow and break down the tissue.  This erosion of tendons and sinew causes the first noticeable symptom of a Zagworm infection: involuntary reflex reactions.  This rapid tensing and relaxing of the muscles (especially in the limbs) can cause involuntary jumping or, more commonly, falling over; at other times the affected person can be expected to lash out or upwards with the arms and can often result in the patient punching themselves repeatedly in the face.

The next stage of the illness usually sees the fungus spread to the brain, causing memory loss, paranoia and delusions; if treatment isn’t administered early at this stage then recovery is very unlikely.  In some rare cases, where tendons are completely broken down before the destruction of brain tissue has proved fatal, Zagworm can cause Detached Bone Syndrome (DBS), a particularly horrific condition that can see the body contort into painful and unnatural positions, such as joints bending backwards or bones sliding out of position.  The trauma of witnessing this condition in a person who is already highly mentally unstable has been the inspiration for many posession myths, including much of the content of the 1973 film ‘The Exorcist’.

Despite how common the parasite is, and the fact that it is almost always fatal if left undiagnosed, Zagworm can be easily and cheaply treated with voriconazole; it is therefore only prevalent in communities without easy access to medical treatment or areas of extreme poverty.


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