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A Man Hospitalized With Mysterious Seizures Was Diagnosed With Tapeworms That Had Been Living In His Brain For Decades

A woman in Massachusetts woke up to her healthy 38-year-old husband laying on the floor and having what looked like a seizure. She took him to Massachusetts General Hospital, where the medical team performed various tests to determine what was happening. With a brain scan and some blood work, they found that he had cysticercosis, also known as tapeworm infection.

What Is Cysticercosis?

Although not common in the USA, about 1,000 to 2,000 cases of cysticercosis are detected every year. However, cysticercosis is widely spread in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Cysticercosis is a severe parasitic infection caused by larval cysts from the tapeworm Taenia solium found in raw or undercooked meat, especially pork. The larval cysts can infect the brain, tissues, and muscles, causing seizures. (1)

How Does Cysticercosis Happen?

Humans consuming raw or undercooked beef or pork may be at risk of getting infected with Taenia saginata, Taenia asiatica, or Taenia solium. While the first two do not represent a threat to human health,  the Taenia solium can develop into the hazardous cysticercosis illness.  

The tapeworms release eggs inside a person’s body, which then pass into their feces. Due to poor hygiene and lack of environmental cleanliness, the eggs then spread. They contaminate foods, drinking water, household surfaces, and ultimately other humans. When the larvae are inside the host’s body, they can find their way into the tissues and brain, forming cysts there. When these cysts are found in the brain, the condition is known as neurocysticercosis. (2)

Cysticercosis Symptoms

Symptoms of cysticercosis vary depending on the area of the body that is infected as well as the size of the cyst.

  • When the cysts are located in the muscles, the infected individual may not experience any symptoms. However, it may be possible that they feel lumps under the skin. On some occasions, these spots can become tender.
  • Not a common occurrence, but sometimes the cysts can appear in the eyes. When cysts float in the eye area, they can disturb the vision of the afflicted person. It can also cause swelling, blurry vision, and the retina to detach. 
  • When the cysts reach the brain or the spinal cord, it is known as neurocysticercosis. The symptoms vary according to the number of cysts and where in the brain they are located. Among the most common symptoms are seizures and headaches. Confusion, problems with balance, and lack of attention to people and/or surroundings can also be present. In the most severe cases, cysticercosis can end up in death. Symptoms can show months or even years after the infection; when the cysts die, the tissue around swells. The swelling creates pressure that triggers the symptoms.

Cysticercosis Treatment

While not all cases of cysticercosis may need treatment, doctors recommend medication to treat the symptoms of the infection. Most physicians used a combination of anti-inflammatory and anti-parasitic drugs. When patients do not respond to those treatments, surgery may be needed.

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  1. https://journals.plos.org/plosntds/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pntd.0000149#pntd.0000149-White1
  2. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/taeniasis-cysticercosis
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/cysticercosis/gen_info/faqs.html 

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