Current epidemiological evidence for predisposition to high or low intensity human helminth infection: a systematic review

31 Jan 2018
Wright JE, Werkman M, Dunn JC, Anderson RM

Background: The human helminth infections include ascariasis, trichuriasis, hookworm infections, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis (LF) and onchocerciasis. It is estimated that almost 2 billion people worldwide are infected with helminths. Whilst the WHO treatment guidelines for helminth infections are mostly aimed at controlling morbidity, there has been a recent shift with some countries moving towards goals of disease elimination through mass drug administration, especially for LF and onchocerciasis. However, as prevalence is driven lower, treating entire populations may no longer be the most efficient or cost-effective strategy. Instead, it may be beneficial to identify individuals or demographic groups who are persistently infected, often termed as being “predisposed” to infection, and target treatment at them.

Methods: The authors searched Embase, MEDLINE, Global Health, and Web of Science for all English language, human-based papers investigating predisposition to helminth infections published up to October 31st, 2017. The varying definitions used to describe predisposition, and the statistical tests used to determine its presence, are summarised. Evidence for predisposition is presented, stratified by helminth species, and risk factors for predisposition to infection are identified and discussed.

Results: In total, 43 papers were identified, summarising results from 34 different studies in 23 countries. Consistent evidence of predisposition to infection with certain species of human helminth was identified. Children were regularly found to experience greater predisposition to Ascaris lumbricoides, Schistosoma mansoni and S. haematobium than adults. Females were found to be more predisposed to A. lumbricoides infection than were males. Household clustering of infection was identified for A. lumbricoides, T. trichiura and S. japonicum. Ascaris lumbricoides and T. trichiura also showed evidence of familial predisposition. Whilst strong evidence for predisposition to hookworm infection was identified, findings with regards to which groups were affected were considerably more varied than for other helminth species.

Conclusion: This review has found consistent evidence of predisposition to heavy (and light) infection for certain human helminth species. However, further research is needed to identify reasons for the reported differences between demographic groups. Molecular epidemiological methods associated with whole genome sequencing to determine ‘who infects whom’ may shed more light on the factors generating predisposition.