Tapeworms are most commonly thought of to be found in the digestive tract, but new evidence shows that certain tapeworms can actually live in the human brain. If that wasn't bad enough, the incident of brain tapeworms is higher than one might expect and could cause significant brain damage if left untreated.
"Nobody knows exactly how many people there are with it [neurocysticercosis] in the United States," Dr. Theodore Nash of the National Institute of Health in Maryland told Discover Magazine. "Minimally there are 5 million cases of epilepsy from neurocysticercosis."
Cysticerocosis is defined as infection of bodily tissue after exposure to the pork tapeworm through contaminated food or water. The eggs of the tapeworm often move to the brain, causing cysts. Most commonly, the cysts can cause "headache, nausea, and vomiting and may be accompanied by altered mental status," according to a case report by Andrew H. Kerstein and Andrew. D. Massey.
The problem is much worse in Latin America, where it is estimated that the number of people infected with brain tapeworms is between 11 million and 29 million. In other developing countries, the problem is also high. "Neurocysticercosis is a very important disease worldwide," Nash noted.
Nash's research states that if a tapeworm does end up in the brain, causing a cyst, that cyst "may push against a region of the brain and disrupt its function." This could lead to anything from hydrocephalus, or water on the brain, to a brain hernia causing stupor, coma, or death.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, these patients just died," Nash explained. "Surgeons would go in and see this mess and couldn't do much."
The new research has allowed doctors to learn how to treat tapeworms, providing a much better chance of survival in patients.
"I see this as a disease that can be treated and prevented. All of this seems to be very feasible, but nobody wants to do anything about it," he said.
Part of the prevention comes at the animal level, vaccinating pigs so that their own bodies will destroy tapeworm eggs. People who are diagnosed with tapeworms can also receive treatment that will kill any and all tapeworms in their system. The best form of prevention, though, is thoroughly cooking all pork products before ingesting them.