Once they enter your body, worms can move throughout your body, your eyes,your tissues, and your brain. This parasite is pretty dangerous and it can get into your head.
About four years before that, the team of doctors at Addenbrookes Hospital at Cambridge, had a patient, a man, with first experienced symptoms, such as headaches. But, the patient returned soon after that. This patient was a Chinese descent who had recently been to China. China, Japan, Thailand and South Korea had most of the regular occurrences of the parasite known as Spirometra erinaceieuropaei.
Gkrania – Klotsas said “When the patient returned, he had all new symptoms”. The worm was now moving through a new part of the man’s brain. This is what made his legs weak and he had seizures. In fact, he was diagnosed with Sparganosis. That is a dangerous infection. Upon such diagnosis, doctors had to be quick to remove the worm through a surgery, because there is no drug to effectively treat the infection.
In the period between 1953 and 2013, 300 infections of the Spirometra tapeworm were recorded. Infections are more common in people that do not know about worms, in some parts of Asia.
Dr Hayley Bennett, a geneticist from the Welcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge, whose team has recently sequenced the genome of the rare worm, said: “These worms are some of the most mysterious worms we have researched”. They knew that this life cycle is more complicated.
Adult forms of Spirometra tapeworm only occurs in the intestines of dogs and cats, but worm’s eggs are excreted through their feces, and the eggs can enter, and contaminate the water. The juvenile form of tapeworm, the larvae, may stay in the water for a long time or it can easily end up in snakes and frogs.
Through direct contact with infected animals or ingestion, these larvae can invade humans. As per Gkrania – Klotsas, they received a patient in Cambridge who had accidentally drunk water while swimming in an infected lake.
Bennett explained “The larvae can encyst in the brain or any other place in the human body”. These cysts are able to cause blindness, paralysis, tissue damage or even death. Bennett believed to understand these sequencing from the worm’s genes and their way of functioning in order to aid future treatment and diagnosis.
Creating a drug for this worm is not cheap, because it is a very rare infection. But, through a comparison with other similar kinds, the researchers can see which other drugs might apply.
They took small samples of the worm from the infected patient, which could function as a future drug target, and can help recognize resistance to drugs. They can identify an exceptionally large genes and genome from such small samples. Bennett added: “You could also develop a diagnostic test”.
The tapeworm may be found in different types of forms, but 3 of them can readily infect the brain. Helena Helmby from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “It’s mainly the pork tapeworm that’s the main brain”.
People can be infected by the pork species, Taenia Solium in two forms:
The first form of infection, is through consuming undercooked pork from infected pigs. This results in taeniasis – an adult worm residing in the intestine.
The second form of infections is actually the larval form. The infection can occur through contact with the feces of an infected human or pig. If the larval form reaches the nervous system, especially the brain, it may cause a condition called neurocycticercosis. This kind of infection can often cause epilepsy once inside the brain. The World Health Organization said that almost a 1/3 of epilepsy cases in countries where the disease is native are people who were previously infected by neurocysticercosis.
The infection keeps spreading due to poor hygiene. Helmby said; “In fact, you can actually infect yourself,” as poor hygiene, such as failing to wash your hands, could result in you consume the eggs of an adult worm living in your intestine. “Self-infection is common.”
According to the World Health Organization the global spreading of pork tapeworms is widespread, because of the increased number of cases in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Gkrania – Klotsas has 3 patients in her care in Cambridge who have previously experienced neurocysticercosis.
Cause for concern?
The treatment for Spirometra has been surgically until now, but, Bennett’s team in Cambridge, succeeded to find drugs, like praziqantil, that may be effective. These drugs are used against schistosomiasis (snail fever). Other drugs utilized against cancer were identified as potential treatments. The treatments with anthelmintic drugs are targeting the worm, although infections with pork tapeworms are common.
Gkrania – Klotsas said: “I’m confident there will be more of this in the future”, who has already seen patients infected without even going abroad. The infection follows the people, wherever they are.
They say that people who are planning to travel, should be more aware when visiting regions where infections are commonplace. Helmby said: “The challenge at the moment is to be able to treat these infections.” This is the challenge where genetics researchers have the chance to prove invaluable, as their sequencing continues to unveil the secrets of these mysterious parasites.