Many parasites can enter human body through food, but this one is a little bit different because it can move through human eyes, tissues and even brain. The first case of this worm was recorded in the United Kingdom, 2 years ago, when a British man who visited China complained about frequent headaches and few other symptoms (he later found out that the cause was the parasite known as Spirometra erinaceieuropaei).
The doctors confused these symptoms with the ones found in tuberculosis and started treating the patient. Although the first results were successful, the man started to experience other symptoms. It appeared that the worm has just moved to another part of the brain, which resulted in weakness in the legs and seizures. Finally, the doctors realized that this is a rare case of the infection known as Sparganosis. Since there is no effective treatment for this infection, the only option was to remove the parasite through a surgery.
In 50 years, only 300 cases of Spirometra tapeworm infections were recorded all over the world and they were most common in Asia. It is possible that this number is higher, but since these infections often occur in rural parts of Asian countries, the deaths are probably recorded as a cause by something else.
According to Haley Bennett, a geneticist from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, the Spirometra worm is a pure mystery and this is one of the worms with the most complicated life cycle.
A grown tapeworm of this kind can be found only in the intestines of dogs and cats and they can spread the worms’ eggs through their feces (water contamination). These larvae can remain in the water for days and they can enter the system of snakes and frogs using the water. They can also enter end up in humans by direct contact with any of these animals or through ingestion. The patient from the UK apparently picked up the worm by drinking water from a lake where he was swimming.
Spirometra larvae can create cysts in the brain or some other parts of the body. The effects can be serious – blindness, tissue damage or in some cases – death. Dr. Bennett’s team has successfully sequenced the genes of this worm in order to understand how to treat this infection because surgeries can sometimes be very risky. Of course, developing a special drug for this infection is financially viable and that’s why they are trying to determine which drugs used for parasites can be applied in these cases too.
Tapeworm comes in many forms. Three of them are known as a potential threat to human’s brain. When we look at the number of infections, one of them stands out because of the high number of cases – pork tapeworm.
A tapeworm that is linked to pork is known as Taenia Solium and it can enter the human body in two ways. Firstly, it can enter the body if the pork meat that people consume is undercooked and the result in this case is taeniasis – a grown worm that can be found in the intestine.
The second way is through direct contact with the feces of infected humans or pigs and this time the tapeworm enters the body as larvae. This is the more dangerous form because the larvae can settle in different parts of the body including the brain. The worst-case scenario is a case of neurocysticercosis. This type of infection often leads to epilepsy. According to WHO statistics, about 1/3 of the people suffering from epilepsy that live in countries where this tapeworm is common, have suffered from neurocysticercosis before.
This infection is caused by poor personal hygiene and sanitation. Asia, Africa and Latin America are the countries with the highest number of patients suffering from tapeworm.
Do we need to worry?
The good news is that infections caused by pork tapeworm are treatable. They can be treated with the help of antihelminthic drugs. When it comes to Spirometra, the research of Dr. Bennett has shown that certain drugs as praziquantel (used in cases of snail fever) has certain positive effects. The same thing goes for certain drugs used in cases of Kris Carr.
The increased number of tourists in these exotic destinations can increase the risk of tapeworm infections. In addition, food and goods from these countries are now available on the markets all over the world. That’s why the experts predict more cases of this type of infections. People who are traveling in these countries need to be more aware of the risks and take the measures that are necessary to protect their health. On the other hand, food inspections should be more frequent in the stores.