While male menstruation sounds like an anomaly, accounts from Egypt painted a curious picture.
During the Napoleonic campaigns in the early 19th century, French soldiers noted a peculiar condition among the local Egyptian men: many reported blood in their urine, leading to the label “the land of the menstruating men.”
Deciphering Male Menstruation
The actual cause behind this perplexing phenomenon is a parasitic disease named schistosomiasis. It originates from Schistosoma worms.
When freshwater snails infected with these parasites release larvae, those larvae can penetrate the skin of humans who come into contact with the water.
Once the larvae invade a human host, they mature into adult worms that live in the blood vessels. The female worms lay eggs, some of which the body excretes through urine or feces, and some remain in the body.
It’s these eggs that can cause inflammation, tissue damage, and bleeding when they lodge in the bladder or intestine.
The presence of blood in urine, or hematuria, became a characteristic symptom among many Egyptian men. This sign of schistosomiasis was the source of the “male menstruation” confusion.
The disease not only caused physical distress but also carried a significant cultural and psychological burden given the societal perceptions of the symptoms.
French Soldiers and Schistosomiasis
In the late 18th century, under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, French ambitions extended beyond Europe, aiming to challenge the British Empire’s growing dominance.
The French campaign in Egypt, which began in 1798, was a strategic endeavor to disrupt British trade routes to India and spread revolutionary ideals. Napoleon, with an army of approximately 35,000 soldiers, invaded Egypt, capturing Alexandria and later Cairo.
This expedition was not purely military; it also included scholars and scientists who studied the ancient and contemporary culture of Egypt. Their presence led to significant discoveries, including the famed Rosetta Stone.
However, while the campaign had initial successes, it faced challenges, such as an encounter with schistosomiasis.
While the local Egyptians bore the “menstruating men” moniker, the French soldiers were not immune. Many who waded in the Nile for bathing or other activities also contracted the disease. However, the term likely stuck more with the Egyptians due to pre-existing observations.
Unraveling the Mystery of Menstruating Men
It took some time before medical professionals connected the dots. The visible blood in urine, a clear symptom of a severe schistosomiasis infection, was initially misunderstood. (However, both men and women suffered from this symptom.)
Eventually, with advancements in medical knowledge and further studies in parasitology, the real nature of the disease became apparent. Scientists and doctors recognized that the “male menstruation” was actually a manifestation of schistosomiasis.
Modern medicine offers effective treatments for schistosomiasis, primarily using the drug praziquantel. Efforts to control the disease also focus on reducing the population of infected snails and improving sanitation to prevent contamination of freshwater sources. Education campaigns aim to reduce human contact with infested water.
Today, the disease remains endemic in many parts of Africa, including Egypt, but global health initiatives strive to reduce its impact.
Recognizing the history and myths surrounding schistosomiasis can help in understanding its cultural implications and the importance of continued efforts to combat it.