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Is it dangerous to walk barefoot in a tropical garden?

June 4, 2011

Thai: Put on your shoes, or you will get worms!

Farang: What are you talking about??

A foreigner coming to the tropics may not be aware of the tropical parasites. The background to this conversation is that hookworms (nematodes in the genera Necator and Ancylostoma) may enter your skin and cause dermatitis. The worms are actually intestinal, and if present in your garden they probably originate from dog or cat poo. The dangerous hookworms are those specialised on man, and they spread via human poo and infect new victims via the skin of your feet. The hookworms suck blood causing anemia and may cause severe damage to pregnant women and their babies. The disease is often symptomless but serious. The worms can migrate everywhere in the body, and even transfer to newborn babies via the mother’s milk, and kill the babies. About 10% of the world’s human population is infected.

The worms thrive in moist sandy soils, but will die during droughts and sunshine.

How do you protect yourself? To avoid the skin rash caused by hookworms from dogs and cats, give your pets vermicides, and put up a fence so that alien pets can not invade your garden. Always wash vegetables from another place than your own garden. To avoid human hookworms, avoid walking barefoot outside your garden. If you know that nobody can use your garden as a toilet, enjoy the grass between your toes!

Since many worm infections occur in the tropics (pinworms, Ascaris affecting 25% of the world’s population, tapeworm and fasciola) many Thais regularly eat commercial vermicides. Before chemical treatments, the Thais would use the fruits of ebony (Diospyros spp. Ebenaceae) or the leaves of Azadirachta indica (Meliaceae). The best vermicide was opium, made from the poppy Papaver somniferum.

Diospyros montana, a native ebony used to treat worms. If you visit Dokmai Garden you can see the actual tree. Ketsanee’s grandfather used these fruits regularly to keep his stomach trimmed.

Weather: we got 19 mm of rain last night. As the weather pattern around Chiang Mai is erratic we have not had rain for the past week, in spite of downtown rains. This refreshing gift keeps the garden lush.

Text and Photo: Eric Danell

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