What is Schistosomiasis? - Ancient Egyptian Diseases
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What is Schistosomiasis?

Fishing in the Nile River
Fishing in the swamps on the edges of the Nile River
from the tomb of the astronomer Nakht
Sixth Dynasty (New Kingdom, ca. 1400 BC)

Because pretty much all the people in Ancient Egypt lived right on the banks of the Nile River, many of them caught a river parasite which causes a disease called schistosomiasis. The astronomer Nakht, whose picture is at the top of this page, had the eggs of this fluke inside his body in his tomb (and a tapeworm, too!). People who have these flukes living inside them often suffer from fevers, chills, swollen lymph nodes, and swollen livers and spleens. They feel tired, so it's hard for them to work. Sometimes they also have itchy skin and diarrhea. The flukes also eat the food inside you, so people with schistosoma flukes inside them are often skinny and underfed. Like other parasites, schistosoma doesn't usually kill you itself but it makes you weaker, so you're more likely to die of other diseases like dysentery or tuberculosis.

Schistosomiasis was a major problem for Egyptian doctors, the next biggest problem after malaria. Egyptian doctors didn't know what caused schistosomiasis, because they didn't have microscopes to see the tiny parasites. Doctors tried many different kinds of medicine. Some evidence suggests that they used antimony, a toxic metallic rock. Antimony would have worked to kill the schistosoma parasites (but it was very hard on your body in other ways), but nobody is sure whether they really used it.

Learn by doing: use a microscope to see bacteria
More about Egyptian medicine

Bibliography and further reading about Egyptian medicine:

More about Egyptian Medicine
More about ancient Egypt
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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