Human Disease and the Rod of Asclepius

  • by Larry Stanleigh, BSc, MSc, DDS, FAGD, FADI, FICD, FACD, FPFA
  • Dec 6, 2018, 10:38 AM

There are not many infectious diseases that have humans as the primary or sole source of carrier and transmission. One of them is Smallpox, and thanks to a concerted worldwide effort with vaccinations, has been eradicated from our planet. Another one is a parasitic worm, the Guinea worm disease (GWD), or dracunculiasis. This worm, once ingested, will migrate from the gut, through our circulatory system, and burrow along under our skin. Eventually, by scratching, you open a wound from which the worm can emerge. But the burning sensation is so debilitating that you put your skin in water to cool it off, allowing the worm to release larvae that can later be ingested and start the cycle over again.

Former President Jimmy Carter recognized the threat of GWD and formed the Carter Center, an international campaign to eradicate GWD. After decades of work, humankind has reduced the infected burden from 3.5 million cases in 1986 to only 30 in 2017. Only four countries (South Sudan, Mali, Chad and Ethiopia) remain sources of this parasite. GWD is now slated to become the second human disease to be eradicated from our planet — after smallpox, the first parasitic disease to be eliminated — and the first to do so without the use of vaccines or medicines. This is a remarkable achievement.

I became aware of this while listening to the Star Talk Radio podcast hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. In the entertaining podcast, Tyson described the origins of the Rod of Asclepius, a symbol of medicine. About 3,500 years ago, in 1500 B.C., the Ebers Papyrus described old Egyptian medical documents where the Guinea worm was removed from the body by creating a slit in the skin that allowed the worm to emerge. By placing a rod near the entrance, the worm wound its way around as healers gently pulled it out of the body, slowly and completely.

Asclepius is the Greek god of medicine. He is the son of Apollo, the god of healing, truth and prophecy, and a mortal, Coronis. Homer described the Rod of Asclepius in the Iliad and the method of removing the Guinea worm. As a result, the single serpent winding around a rod became the symbol of medicine and healing.

Sometimes, this symbol is mistaken for the Caduceus, a rod with two serpents winding around it with two wings at the top. This is the symbol of the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods. The caduceus is the symbol of business and commerce, but certain medical organizations have mistakenly used this symbol to represent their branch of medical care.

Unlike GWD, caries and periodontal disease are two human infections that we are unlikely to be resolve soon. Caries is the most prevalent human infection in the world, affecting more people than any other disease known to humankind. Caries has one primary cause, streptocossus mutans (though other bacterial sources can help establish and progress caries).

Periodontal disease is another matter. Multiple bacteria are implicated in the progression of periodontal disease, and we poorly understand the host response to the bacteria that is truly responsible for the progression of this terrible infectious disease.

I celebrate our efforts to eradicate those diseases we can, improving the human condition. While we wait for science to find a way to eradicate caries and periodontal disease, I also celebrate dentists who work hard to manage those diseases, particularly oral inflictions. Our work has a tremendous impact, allowing us to improve the daily quality of our patients’ lives.

For more information about the Carter Center please go to

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