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Tapeworm infection in the brain that can trigger seizures is a growing health concern, doctors say. But the infection, which leads to swelling in the brain, is usually treatable with medication.
Estimated cases of neurocysticercosis, as the tapeworm infection is called, range from 40,000 to 160,000 each year in the United States, said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “It’s been around a long time, affecting people living in severe poverty, but the disease is not well-studied or understood,” Hotez said.
Texas is one area of the country with many cases. “The disease has now become a leading cause of epilepsy in Houston,” Hotez said. “Every [week], we have patients come into our tropical medicine clinic with it.” Concerns about an apparent increase of neurocysticercosis within the United States led the American Academy of Neurology to issue treatment guidelines for doctors and patients in the April 9 issue of the journal Neurology.
The tapeworm infection occurs when improperly cooked meat or any contaminated food or drink is consumed. The larvae then transform into full-sized tapeworms, which can grow to several feet, Hotez said.
In pigs, tapeworm larvae travel to the brain and await transmission to another animal (a human, for instance) when the pigs are eaten. The parasites do the same thing in humans, but there’s nowhere to go from the human brain. Ultimately, the larvae die, and that’s when they lose the ability to hide from the body’s immune system. The immune system responds by causing inflammation, which leads to epileptic seizures and brain swelling, Hotez said.