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6200-Year-Old Parasite Egg First Proof of Technology's Contribution to Disease

Jun 20, 2014 01:58 PM EDT

Scientists recently discovered a 6,200-year-old schistosomiasis parasite egg in Syria, providing the first clue that human technology contributed to and even exacerbated disease burden in the Middle East.

According to new research published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the schistosomiasis egg was found in a grave at a prehistoric town by the Euphrates River in Syria.

Schistosomiasis is a disease caused by several species of flatworm parasites that live in the blood vessels of the bladder and intestines. It can result in anemia, kidney failure and bladder cancer.

In this case, the parasite was found in the pelvic area of the burial where the intestines and bladder would have been.

Dr. Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge, UK, involved in the study, says the discovery might be among the oldest evidence of human-made technology inadvertently causing disease outbreaks.

"The individual who contracted the parasite might have done so through the use of irrigation systems that were starting to be introduced in Mesopotamia around 7,500 years ago," Mitchell said in a press release.

"The parasite spends part of its life cycle in snails that live in warm fresh water, before leaving the snail to burrow through the skin of people wading or swimming in the water. These irrigation systems distributed water to crops and may have triggered the beginning of the enormous disease burden that schistosomiasis has caused over the past 6,000 years," he explained.

The oldest Schistosomiasis egg found previously was in Egyptian mummies from 5,200 years ago. This most recent discovery, made by an international team of archaeologists and biological anthropologists, shows that the parasite infected humans in this region at least a thousand years earlier than believed.

Technology, while revolutionary in most aspects, also contributes to the spread of disease in the Middle East as well as other parts of the world, and continues to do so to this day.

"Schistosomiasis has become progressively more common over time so that it causes a huge burden across the world today, with over 200 million people infected," Mitchel added.

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