Friday, July 18, 2014

Meet the 10 parasites that are most likely to be in your food

Helena Helmby is a senior lecturer at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

You probably don't have to worry about your steak. 

Most people are fascinated, and probably equally repulsed, by parasites. And it may be something you think you only need to worry about if you go on holiday somewhere exotic. However, increasing globalization and transportation of food products across the globe means we are all increasingly at risk of catching something unwanted from our favorite foods.

Many infections can be thwarted with proper hygiene—washing fruit and vegetables, including “ready-washed” lettuce, cooking meat properly and avoiding contamination from domestic or wild animals. A joint UN/WHO report said better farming and global food trade standards could also prevent parasites entering the food chain. Experts have ranked the 24 most damaging food-borne parasites according to number of cases, global distribution and health impact. Here are the top ten:

1. Taenia solium

T. solium, also known as pork tapeworms, can measure up to 10m when mature and are among the biggest of these ribbon-like worms to infect humans. They do this through larval cysts in undercooked pork that hatch in the stomach and quickly grow into adult worms which inhabit the intestine, feeding on the nutrients you eat.

Disease is generally restricted to malnutrition as the worm competes with you for food—unless you ingest eggs rather than a cyst. These migrate around the body before forming larval cysts—a condition called cysticercosis— just like they do in the pigs. This can cause severe problems, particularly in the central nervous system (neurocysticercosis) where they can cause epileptic seizures. This is believed to be a main cause of epilepsy in many poorer parts of the world.

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