When starvation looms, safari ants leave their anthills in search of food. Unlike ordinary ants that scurry around seemingly in a panic, safari ants march out in orderly columns. Individually an ant is a tiny creature, but it is their sheer numbers that cause us to notice them. There can be millions of ants on the move. They travel relatively slowly just 20 meters an hour, but can be savage when they come across a non moving object or animal in their path.
In their ranks are soldier ants that can sting but prefer to bite using their powerful jaws. And they do, as many of us can testify. Safari ants can be useful eating many crop pests ranging from insects to rats. But they can also cause harm; included in that range of safari ant delicacies are earthworms.
Earthworms live in the soil, feeding on dead and live organic matter. We find them useful because as they eat they convert useless smelly organic material into useful compost fertiliser.
The whole worm is nothing but a digestive factory. Near its mouth are many chemoreceptors that identify what it needs to eat. The rest of it is a hollow tube. The earthworm lacks a skeleton and is self sufficient in many ways including being a hermaphrodite.
It has both male and female sex organs. To reproduce you still need two worms, and if you were to peek in the garden at night you would find them snuggling in pairs. Earthworms are relatively big on average about thirty centimetres in length and can live for years.
A good garden or shamba needs earthworms. Apart from making fertilizer they also aerate the soil as they move about allowing water and other nutrients to mix well. However not all worms are this hardworking. In the same soil we find soil- transmitted helminthes, species of worm that are parasitic.
The most common and worrisome of these soil-transmitted helminthes are the roundworm and the hookworm. The roundworm scientific name Ascaris lumbricoides is the largest – same size as an earthworm and most common parasitic infection in humans. Infection occurs when a person, usually a child, swallows food or water contaminated with Ascaris eggs.
The eggs are enveloped in a protective fatty layer that prevents stomach acid from dissolving them. Before they settle in the intestines, which will be home for the adult, the eggs do a tour of the body, visiting the lungs and the heart as it were assessing the fitness of the individual to be a good home. This gives rise to the initial symptoms of a cough, and or mild allergic like reactions.
But this lasts just a few days and once settled within 60 days the egg has matured into an adult and egg production begins. The female lays about 200,000 eggs a day, which are excreted in faeces. The eggs are tough and can live in the outside environment for three years or more.
This is why these helminthes are found wherever there is inadequate water and sanitation. Children are especially affected because of their hygiene and play habits. The world health organisation recommends that wherever the prevalence of infection exceeds ten per cent then mass deworming of children should take place. In Kenya this is done in schools.
If the prevalence is between ten and fifty percent then school children should be dewormed every other year. If the rate is above 50 per cent then it should be done annually. While actual symptoms are few, children infected with worms are sharing their food. An infection with one worm species likely means there are other parasitic worms present.
So such children are weak, anaemic and in the long run stunted in growth, both physically and mentally. Regular treatment, which is very cheap, reduces school absenteeism and naturally improves school performance. There is a world of difference when you have a conversation with a dewormed child compared to one who is full of worms.
In Kenya over the years there have been more than 1,000 scientific surveys carried out to assess the areas where helminthes are most found. The highest reported estimates of helminthes are in the counties that make up the former western province. Because of free primary education, many more children now attend school.
There is an opportunity to eradicate a disease that is hidden but has slow but devastating consequences within society. However to do so requires that we ensure free primary education really works and that the country backs research to identify those who are most vulnerable to poor health. A safari ant approach is not the way to go. To quote Booker T. Washington as reported by Mark Twain 1906.
“No two groups of people can live side by side where one is in ignorance and poverty without its condition affecting the other.”