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No doubt you’ve heard the recent news about a live eight-centimeter roundworm from a carpet python invading the brain of a 64-year-old Australian woman.
The Ophidascaris robertsi roundworm was pulled from the patient after brain surgery and is considered to be the world’s first case of a new parasitic infection in humans, discovered by researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) and the Canberra Hospital.
Ophidascaris robertsi roundworms are common to carpet pythons. It typically lives in a python’s esophagus and stomach and sheds its eggs in the snake’s feces.
Major “ick” factor, for sure. But with Australia’s reputation for deadly creatures (including poisonous spiders, snakes and crocodiles), like me, you’re probably relieved not to live in a danger zone.
In the U.S., most of us never consider parasite dangers or the diseases they cause.
But the truth is most citizens of North America have no clue how prevalent these organisms are in their daily life. Physicians completely overlook (or do not know) the possibility that Americans and Canadians experience parasitic infections, too.
So, if you think you have to live in a tropical or sub-tropical region to encounter a parasite, you’d be wrong…
Parasites are bad news and getting worse
A parasitic infection can lead to seizures, blindness, pregnancy complications, heart failure, and even death.
In the United States alone, more than 40 million people are chronically infected with toxoplasma gondii (found in the feces of cats, undercooked meat, and unwashed vegetables). That’s just one of many parasites the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued warnings on.
A parasite is an organism that gets nourishment from or at the expense of the host. As they siphon off nutrients, mild symptoms can go unnoticed at first. When a patient begins to wonder about their declining health or energy, they’re often misdiagnosed or ignored by doctors unless they’ve traveled recently.
The Australian woman was first admitted to a local hospital in late January 2021 after suffering three weeks of abdominal pain and diarrhea, followed by a constant dry cough, fever and night sweats. But it wasn’t until 2022, when she began experiencing forgetfulness and depression that doctors ordered an MRI and found and removed her stowaway, luckily before it could do more damage.
In National Geographic’s award-winning documentary, Body Snatchers, they reported, “Parasites have killed more humans than all the wars in history.”
Parasites are probably the most diverse of all biological forms and yet, by definition, remain implacably hostile to humans. Of the 7.8 billion acres of potential arable land on Earth, only 3.4 billion acres can be farmed. Most of the rest cannot be developed because of parasitic infections such as malaria, trypanosomiasis, schistosomiasis, and onchocerciasis.
In other words, less than half the farmable land is available because of parasitic infestation. In Africa alone, an area the size of the United States cannot be farmed because of trypanosomes (blood parasites). Many millions in South America have never experienced a healthy day in their lives because of these unicellular parasitic protozoa.
Domestic animals and cattle die quickly upon contracting them. Humans may survive but trypanosomes invade every organ and tissue in the body. They have a special attraction to your lymphatic system and brain, with disastrous consequences (sleeping sickness).
Parasites are everywhere
With the ease of international travel, the danger of parasite exposure has exploded. They’ve been able to spread rapidly and uncontrolled across every land mass on Earth. When a new parasite invades a population where there is low or zero natural immunity, the results can be catastrophic.
Parasites are some of the most successful and abundant creatures on the planet. Malaria remains the number one killer infection in the world. It is classified as a parasitic disease.
It has been said that one group (nematodes or roundworms) are so plentiful that if everything on Earth was removed except them, you’d still be able to see the shape of the hills, the animals, trees, and humans!
They are everywhere. In the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. Every single living organism is susceptible to invasion. Even bacteria have parasites!
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), at least 3.5 billion people are infected with some type of parasite. The world population is 8 billion, which translates to almost 50% of the people on the planet being infected. In actuality, the infection rate is likely much higher. Most people simply aren’t aware that they’re hosting a parasite.
What parasites do to your health
Where the immune system is strong, the infected host generally remains well. However, if overall immunity is compromised, these infestations can be a source of serious symptoms.
Most parasites do not kill their host outright (it’s not in their best interest) but they can make life difficult and painful while keeping you alive.
Severe allergic reactions may manifest, where the cause is not obvious unless diligently searched out. Fatal anaphylaxis has been documented. Competition for nutrients from parasites will inevitably lead to micro- and macro-nutrient deficiency. This in turn can lead to chronic health problems from compromised immunity.
All of this raises your risk of succumbing to a disease not related to parasitic infection – yet caused by it all the same. Parasites must be part of the clinical ecology picture. This is not a sick body problem but a healthy body being damaged by extraneous factors. Parasites are just another type of toxic body burden. One we cannot afford to ignore anymore.
Parasites, even when present in significant numbers, may not be the sole cause of the patient’s problems but merely a contributive overload factor. Here’s a list of the most common parasitic infections and their side effects:
- Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a parasite (Trichomonas vaginalis) that often produces no symptoms. May cause itching, redness, irritation, and an unusual discharge in your genital area.
- Giardiasis is an intestinal infection (from a parasite called Giardia lamblia) that can lead to diarrhea, gas, upset stomach, greasy stools, and dehydration.
- Cryptosporidiosis is another intestinal infection (from the parasite Cryptosporidium) that causes stomach cramps, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, weight loss, and fever.
- Toxoplasmosis is one of the world’s most common and easily transmitted parasitic infections (Toxoplasma gondii) that mimics flu-like symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, fever, and muscle aches or pains that can last for over a month.
Per cancer.org, some parasites can even raise the risks of certain cancers. These parasitic worms are not found in the U.S., but anyone who travels frequently should be aware of them:
- Opisthorchis viverrini and Clonorchis sinensis are liver flukes (a type of flatworm) that have been linked to the risk of developing cancer of the bile ducts. These infections come from eating raw or undercooked freshwater fish.
- Schistosoma haematobium is a parasite found in the water of some countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Infection with this parasite (an illness called schistosomiasis) has been linked to bladder cancer.
How do you know if you’re affected?
Could the dangers of parasite invasion be affecting you? You should suspect parasites if you regularly experience tiredness, listlessness, loss of appetite, irritability, insomnia, vague aches and pains (not confined to bowel), swings in bowel habit, flatulence, inappropriate hunger, skin rashes, itching anus or itching ears.
The good news is that most of these parasitic infections can be prevented and many are treatable. However, these infections often go undetected and untreated.
Most people don’t know they’re infected, at risk, or may not have access to appropriate care. Healthcare providers (particularly in developed countries) are unfamiliar with parasitic infections, don’t consider them as a probable cause, and may not diagnose or treat them appropriately. There is a limited understanding of how many are infected or who is at risk.
Parasites are transmitted in a number of ways…
- Domesticated pets
- Infected water
- Raw (unpasteurized) milk
- Uncooked or undercooked foods
- Other humans who are infected
- Insect populations (such as mosquitoes)
- Animal populations (such as pigs, cattle, and even raccoons)
- Ectoparasites (ticks and fleas)
As you can see from transmission, many of these sources of parasitic exposure are controllable, preventable, or avoidable entirely.
Filtering water, preparing food properly, safe sexual practices, controlling exposure to insects and external parasites (ticks and fleas), and simple hand washing can help you avoid the dangers of parasites in many cases.
If you suspect a parasitic infection, speak to your doctor about testing and treatment. If you don’t bring it up (and live in a developed nation), it will likely not occur to him/her to check!
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- CBS News: CDC warns of common parasites plaguing millions in U.S.
- CDC: Parasitic Infections also occur in the United States
- Medical News Today: What’s to know about parasites?
- National Geographic: Body Snatchers, Season 1, Episode 17
- PLoS Med: World Health Organization Estimates of the Global and Regional Disease Burden of 11 Foodborne Parasitic Diseases, 2010: A Data Synthesis
- World Health Organization: Global Burden of Disease – Causes of Death