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Human Brain Worms (Neurocysticercosis): Symptoms and Treatment

More than 50 million people throughout the world suffer from brain worm disease, or neurocysticercosis. Parasitic worms in the human brain cause a range of health problems, from mild headache to seizures and death. According to medical experts, brain worm in America is a growing health concern.

In Arizona, a 37-year-old woman suddenly developed headaches, blurred vision, extreme fatigue and numbness in her left arm. Doctors diagnosed Rosemary Alvarez with a brain tumor. When Dr. Peter Nakaji operated, he discovered a tapeworm burrowing into Rosemary’s brain stem. Rosemary had ingested the worm by eating a pork taco.

According to Dr. Nakaji, a neurologist at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, human brain worms are an increasing health problem. When he operated on Rosemary, he had already removed worms from the brains of five other patients the same month.

(Above: worm cysts in the human brain. Image by P. W. Pappas and S. M. Wardrop, Ohio State University)

What is Brain Worm in Humans?

Brain worm is tapeworm that has migrated to the brain.

The worm found in pork (Taenia solium) is one of several tapeworm species that can infest the human brain. Another species, Taeniarhynchus saginatus, occurs in beef. A fish tapeworm, Diphyllobothrium, has been found in undercooked salmon and freshwater fish. Dog or cat tapeworm can also infect people and lodge in the brain. Dwarf tapeworm is harder to detect, and lives primarily in rats, grain insects and humans.

Geography

  • Beef tapeworm is common in regions of Africa, the Philippines, parts of Eastern Europe, and Latin America, but is rare in the United States.

  • Tapeworm in pork occurs world-wide. Most cases of human brain worm disease in America come from pork tapeworm.

  • Fish tapeworm occurs in North America as well as in Scandinavia, Japan, western Russia, and the Baltics. In North America, tapeworm in fish is most common in the Pacific Northwest.

  • Cat or dog tapeworm exists throughout the world, wherever fleas are found.

  • Dwarf tapeworm (Hymenolepis nana) is most common in crowded regions, such as parts of India and China, or in crowded facilities such as day care centers or prisons.

(Above – head of a tapeworm. The “eyes” are actually suckers.)

Causes of Human Brain Worm Disease

Undercooked meats and improper hand washing are primary causes of neurocysticercosis. Pork and freshwater fish should be thoroughly cooked. Beef cooked to a temperature of 135°F (57° C) for five minutes, or frozen to 14°F (-10° C) overnight, will be safe to eat. Smoking or drying meat or fish will not kill tapeworm.

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