In the film "Squirm," earthworms terrorize a small Georgia town. But they're far less menacing than the tapeworm that infects millions of people globally, and they're becoming a threat right here in North America. The American Academy of Neurology has sounded the alarm: "This previously rare disease in the United States is increasingly prevalent, and the infection - and epilepsy due to the infection - are preventable."
An intestinal tapeworm infection happens when you ingest larvae from undercooked pork, fish, beef or contaminated food and water. Symptoms are generally mild, although it can cause gastrointestinal distress. But it's the eggs that cause an invasive infection - neurocysticercosis. Cysts migrate to various organs. In the brain (they land there 70 percent of the time) they trigger encephalitis and epilepsy. About 2,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with neurocysticercosis annually, at a cost of $75 million.
Treatment involves medications that deprive the parasite of glucose (it's a sugar freak), plus a steroid. Antiseizure medications and surgery also may be required. But prevention is the smart move.
1. Wash hands with soap and water before eating or handling food, and after using the toilet.
2. Don't eat undercooked meats. Internal temperatures of 125 F kill tapeworm eggs and larvae.
3. Eating sushi? Fish should be frozen solid for at least 24 hours to kill larvae and eggs. (Maybe skip sushi; it's got too many disease risks!)
4. In tapeworm-infested areas (particularly parts of Latin America, Asia and Africa), wash and cook fruits and vegetables with clean water. And avoid eating uncooked veggies and fruit in restaurants.