The idea of heading to Tijuana and returning with a hookworm infection might sound like a nightmare, but a growing number of people are going out of their way to deliberately inflict that fate on themselves—all in the name of better heath. A feature in the New York Times Magazine by Moises Velasquez-Manoff explores what the headline calls the "Parasite Underground." The story describes a burgeoning movement made up of patients who infect themselves with parasitic worms, or helminths, in an attempt to cure ailments ranging from allergies and inflammatory bowels to Crohn's disease and multiple sclerosis. Proponents swear by it, building on the theory that modern life is too antiseptic and that these parasites can help the body's natural defenses. Critics dismiss it as quackery, but the story digs deep into individual cases and scattered studies supporting the principle.
"I certainly can’t condone it, but I completely understand,” says a parasitologist at James Cook University in Australia. “You’re talking about people with debilitating disease. Modern medicine has just failed them.” Online support groups have sprung up in which users share experiences, along with advice on how to acquire and incubate their worms. (They're often then ingested in tap water, or pressed against the skin so they can burrow in.) The author tried it himself a few years ago and found temporary relief from his eczema and allergies. But "ultimately, the benefits were too variable and the side effects too unpleasant to justify continuing," he writes. He now urges "skepticism" when people ask his advice on the matter, but he says they're often too desperate to heed the advice. Read the fascinating story in full here. (Read more parasites stories.)