Tapeworm talk? Maybe that’s one way to get health care attention

Just in time for Friday the 13th: Tired of the office jocks chin-wagging all day long about the Skins, Nats, Caps, and whatever? Weary of hearing other colleagues chatter about Kardashians, haute coture, or activities in trendy clubs with names that can’t be mentioned in family settings? Here’s a bizarre health-related topic that’s guaranteed to cause some jaws to drop around the water cooler. Don’t talk about this at the lunch or dinner table. But, curiously, there are two, bona fide recent reports on the skin-crawling topic of tapeworms and the harms they can cause. Ick, we know.

The first news item comes from no less than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New England Journal of Medicine about a curious case out of Colombia where an HIV-immune compromised patient presented with unusual tumors in his lungs and lymph nodes. Rounds of tests finally revealed that his cancer-like growths were tied to the 41-year-old man’s infection with Hymenolepis nana, the dwarf tapeworm. The tiny bug, which infects as many as 75 million globally (but rarely in the U.S.), had its own cancer and appears to have given it to its host, who, by the way, died of HIV complications — restricting further study on this odd case. Researchers, for example, don’t know if they had detected the worm-cancer linkage if killing the parasites would have helped.

Enough? Well, how about this report from the Los Angeles Times about a Napa, Calif., student who was suffering debilitating skull pain and was hours from death when surgeons discovered the cause of his affliction: a tiny cyst in a ventricle in his brain, encapsulating a still live scolex — the sucker portion a tapeworm uses to attach itself to its human host. How that varmint tissue survived and traveled deep into the young man’s brain isn’t known, the paper says, but the patient had complained for weeks of increasingly worsening symptoms, including dizziness, blackouts, and crushing headaches so severe they made him vomit.

Caveat emptor about these creepy yarns: There are many varieties of tapeworms, and their infections are rare in the U.S., with fewer than 1,000 cases reported annually, the CDC says. Most incidents involve individuals who eat raw or undercook pork or beef or who paddle around in murky, infected waters. The parasites are sadly prevalent still in undeveloped parts of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, of course, and with our interconnected planet these days, well, who knows. Maybe by discussing extreme cases we can get friends and family to listen to more ordinary but valuable health counsel?

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