Feeling itchy? A new book explores the hidden world of parasites

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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (12/18/10)

This interview was aired as part of the Quirks & Quarks Holiday Book Show. To hear the rest of the show, visit their website.

One of the signs of a truly interesting book is that when you put it down, you just want to sit and think. Rosemary Drisdelle's new book is a variation of that. It's a fascinating read, but when you put it down, you just want to sit and scratch. And shower. And maybe seal yourself in plastic for the rest of your life.

Drisdelle is science writer and clinical parasitologist, and she's the author of Parasites: Tales of Humanity's Most Unwelcome Guests. The tales she tells are often revolting, frequently horrifying and always surprising, as she explores the many ways that a remarkable variety of creatures has found to exploit us.

Parasites -- organisms that live on or in another organism and get everything it needs to survive and flourish from that other organism -- have perhaps always been a part of human life. And as Drisdelle explains, their impact on human history and society may reach far beyond the realm of medicine.

As an example, Drisdelle points to the hookworm. It's theorized that the parasite, which was introduced to the United States by slaves brought from Africa, could have spread to other, poor elements of the population who also walked around barefoot. The slaves who were carriers had a degree of immunity to the hookworm's effects, which includes severe anemia. But without the same type of immunity, the infected, free population would have become tired and listless -- giving the uninfected North an advantage in the American Civil War.

As Drisdelle explained to Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald in a recent interview, "Hookworm, in a way, helped to liberate the very people who were enslaved and brought it to America in the first place."

It's not just the social and historical impact of parasites that Drisdelle would have us reconsider. Generally seen as harmful in medicine, some parasites can actually be beneficial, helping us fine tune our immune systems, deal with allergens and may even help prevent auto-immune diseases.

"Certainly we want to try to prevent these serious and devastating parasitic diseases," Drisdelle said. "But we need to also realize that parasites do play a part in the whole ecology of nature and we don't want to go too crazy trying to eradicate them all."

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Visit the website for Rosemary Drisdelle.

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