Do you know where your pork comes from? Do you know what’s in it? And how can you even be sure? We tend to think that we’re blessed with the world’s best and freshest foods here in the US, so it’s disturbing to imagine that those rib chops in your grocery basket may be home to a gross and debilitating parasite: a type of tapeworm that attacks the brain, rather than the intestine.
The most common source of the tapeworm in question, Taenia solium, is infected and undercooked pork. Though tapeworm larvae typically proceed to the intestines after ingestion, sometimes they lose their way. When that happens, larvae enter the bloodstream instead, and end up in cysts in various parts of the nervous system: in the cortex, inside the ventricles, even around the spinal cord. Infection results in epilepsy in nearly 70 percent of all documented cases, and may also cause stroke or neuropsychiatric dysfunction, according to Medscape.
Though common in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, this infection of the nervous system – referred to medically as neurocysticercosis – is more common in the US than you might think. At least 1,000 hospitalizations occur in the US each year, and the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene confirms that data may be severely skewed due to underreporting.
Just in the past year, several incidences of neurocysticercosis made headlines in the US. In September 2015, a 31-year old woman in Texas was hospitalized after nine months of unexplained headaches and vision impairment. The symptoms turned out to be the result of eight tapeworm larvae sacs growing in her brain.
Two months later, a 26-year old man in California was hospitalized for severe headaches and nausea, and even fell into a coma prior to undergoing surgery. The culprit? A growing tapeworm that was causing fluid blockage in his brain. His doctor explained that merely another 30 minutes of that blockage could have turned fatal.
Treatment for neurocysticercosis exists, but the only proven cure, praziquantel, has been linked to equally problematic incidences of brain swelling and seizure disorders, so prevention is key.
There is really no way for ordinary consumers to determine which pork manufacturers provide the safest and highest quality products, just as there is no way to be sure of the conditions in which these meat products are processed.
The CDC’s best recommendations for prevention are to always wash hands after using the bathroom and before handling food, cooking all meat products (especially pork) thoroughly, and exhibiting caution when consuming food and drink products abroad, such as drinking only bottled, filtered, or boiled water.
Though of course, the best way to avoid contracting this nasty parasite is to stay away from meat products altogether.