Embarrassing Bodies has taken on a tropical disease specialist. He’s lovely, but we had no intention of shaking his hand. Have you seen the stuff they touch?
How did you become involved with Embarrassing Bodies?
I have always loved the show, so I was thrilled when I was approached by the production team to be part of it. It was such a lot of fun working with them, coming up with ideas for the programme and I loved every minute of the filming.
What’s your “day job”?
My day job involves running my own research group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to find new ways to control the insects that spread deadly diseases like malaria and dengue fever. I’m also a lecturer at the London School, where I teach students and medics on tropical diseases and travel health.
Why did you agree to become infected with a hookworm?
Surprisingly, hookworm infection is known to have a beneficial effect on your health! It can cure or alleviate symptoms of allergies like inflammatory bowel disease and food allergies. I have actually suffered from a food allergy for many years which means I cannot eat bread without feeling very ill. I wanted to find out whether this could be cured by having the worms. Amazingly, after around 5 weeks, it worked. Also, the show gave us the chance to find out how the worms get into the body using new state-of-the-art imaging for the first time ever, which was very important for the researchers.
Did it hurt at the time? How did you know that the hookworm was inside you?
I felt a slight stinging sensation as the worms entered through the skin. Then I had no symptoms up until around 4 weeks when I started to get stomach pains and feel a bit sick. If I had kept them for longer, the chances are my symptoms would have disappeared completely. These worms do not give you an itchy bum!
Were there any long lasting effects of the hookworm infection?
No, none whatsoever. But in some tropical countries, large infections can make people very ill.
How common is hookworm infection and what do we need to know about it? How do people get it?
Around 740 million people have hookworm worldwide – It is a huge health problem in developing countries. Hookworm is a parasite that lives its adult life in your intestine. You can get hookworm on holiday by stepping in soil contaminated with poo from an infected person, or brushing past droplets of water on leaves containing the worms. So it’s best to always wear footwear in high risk areas.
How much “insect-appeal” do you have?
I am EXTREMELY attractive to insects – they absolutely love me. This means I clearly don’t produce the natural repellent chemicals in my body odour that protect some lucky people.
What do you think is the biggest myth about mosquitoes?
One of the biggest myths is that foods like marmite, vitamin B and brewer’s yeast repels mosquitoes. It has been shown scientifically that it categorically does not work and should never be relied upon to repel mosquitoes. Remember – one bite from an infected mosquito is all it takes.
Will there ever be a way of being totally resistant to mosquito bites?
We are doing research which may, one day, produce a medication that would make you smell naturally repellent to mosquitoes. But until then, it’s best to protect yourself by wearing loose clothing and using repellents that contain DEET.
Why is it that some people never seem to get bitten?
Mosquitoes are attracted to the scent of some people more than others because everybody’s body odours are different. Around 15% of the population claim to be rarely bitten by mosquitoes. We have shown that this is because those lucky people are producing natural repellents in their body odour – almost as if the body has a natural defence against mosquitoes. These natural chemicals are now being developed as a repellent product.
Why do I react more than others to bites?
Mosquitoes are crafty! When mosquitoes bite they inject their saliva into your body. The saliva contains a cocktail of chemicals which stops the blood from clotting and stops you feeling pain. Your body reacts to the saliva and this often creates itchy red lumps. Over time, if bitten a lot, certain people can become less sensitive to the bites.
Embarrassing Bodies is back in March, on Channel 4.