A British man had to spend months in hospital and lost the use of his legs after a parasitic worm crawled up his penis.

James Michael, 32, was travelling around south-eastern Africa with friends when they spent a while on the shores of Lake Malawi.

The group of four swam and canoed for three hours a day in the freshwater lake, and it’s here that James was exposed to the worm.

Without him realising, it burrowed its way inside him and laid eggs, which infected him with bilharzia.

He slowly became so ill that his immune system went into overdrive, and attacked his spine, preventing him from using his legs.

After a stint in a wheelchair he had to use crutches for four months, as well as suffering digestion and toilet problems.

Luckily, he has now made a full recovery – but is warning others not to swim where there is a risk of waterborne disease.

Advertisement

Advertisement

James, from Kensington in London, said: ‘When I look back at photos from my time in Africa, it’s weird to think that’s where the parasite crawled up my penis.

‘That wasn’t exactly how I imagined the trip of a lifetime with my friends going – the whole experience was surreal and strange.’

He and his friends went on the trip in August 2017, travelling from Zambia to Zimbabwe, before visiting Malawi for five days.

It wasn’t until October 2018, over a year later, that he began to lose feeling in his legs.

He didn’t connect it at first to swimming in the lake, at first assuming it was fatigue from cycling.

However, the symptoms didn’t improve and started to get worse.

Within a few weeks it was taking him five minutes to climb up 15 steps to his flat.

He went to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in November 2018 when he woke up sweating uncontrollably, and started to worry he had MS or motor neurone disease.

Doctors gave him antibiotics and sent him home, but a week later with things still getting worse, he went back again.

He said: ‘I explained to them that something serious was going on.

‘I went to the neurology department, and they did blood tests to see what was up.

‘They determined quite quickly that my immune system was attacking my spine, leading to the loss of control of my legs.

‘I was put on a six-month course of steroids to counter this, but they didn’t actually know what had caused this.’

Advertisement

Advertisement

Doctors from the Hospital For Tropical Diseases eventually diagnosed him correctly just before Christmas and he was given suitable medication.

He said: ‘That killed the infection but I was left basically debilitated.’

He had to spend three months in hospital using a wheelchair, then four months on crutches, until April.

He also had to deal with extreme acne caused by steroids, diarrhoea, and using a catheter because he couldn’t use the loo.

James said: ‘The pain has been like nothing I’ve ever know. At times, it has been an excruciating physical pain that’s been debilitating.

“Early in my recovery – sometime in January – I had a really terrible acne outbreak that went all down my back and down my arms.

‘I couldn’t sleep for a month because lying on my back hurt. I couldn’t really be under running water either, so I had to shower my front instead.

‘In January, I couldn’t use the toilet normally, so had to use a catheter. That was quite embarrassing for me because it’s not something you associate with young guys.

James also lost his appetite and struggled to maintain a sex life with his girlfriend.

‘My girlfriend couldn’t hug me because just to touch me hurt and we’ve not been intimate with each other because it’s just too painful for me,’ he said.

‘I’ll certainly think twice before taking a dip in Lake Malawi.’