When the CT scan was examined, there was not a single doctor who was not shocked to see what was going on in the brain of eight-year-old Tarini (not her real name). For the past six months, she had been going through hell - suffering from blinding headaches, seizures and nausea; moving from doctor to doctor, changing medication frequently to treat the symptoms but not finding a permanent solution - had left her and her family in a state of trauma.
Now, when her doctors saw the CT scan report, they found the real reason for her seizures. Her brain scan showed hundreds of white dots all over. These were tapeworm eggs. These had apparently entered Tarini's blood stream through her intestine and traveled up to her brain.
Medically, this condition is known as Neurocysticercosis (NCC) and it is the most common single cause of seizures/epilepsy in India and several other endemic countries throughout the world. It is also the most common parasitic disease of the brain caused by the cestode Taenia solium or pork tapeworm.
1.2 million cases of tapeworm related seizures in India
"It is not uncommon to see such infestations in India," said Dr Rakesh Aggarwal, Head of the Department of Gastroenterology at PGI Lucknow.
A study by Dr Vedantam Rajshekhar, Department of Neurological Sciences, Christian Medical College & Hospital, Vellore, India, states, "Neurocysticercosis (NCC) is the most common parasitic disease affecting the brain and is also the common identifiable cause of new-onset seizures in several regions of the world including India."
A survey of over 50,000 people in one district in Tamil Nadu, NCC was found to be the cause of active epilepsy in at least a third of them. Based on this survey, the prevalence of NCC as a cause of active epilepsy in India was found to be one per 1000 population. "Thus, at least 1.2 million persons in India are suffering from active epilepsy due to NCC. The most common form of the disease in India was the solitary cysticercus granuloma (SCG) ( first identified in 1989) which was seen in up to 60 per cent of patients with NCC," stated Dr Rajshekhar in his report published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research.
Tarini is on the way to recovery after treatment that included drugs to reduce the swelling in her brain because of the presence of the tapeworm eggs and their subsequent eradication. But what happened to her is something that can happen to many others.
Here's what you need to do to keep safe from tapeworms:
Tapeworms are parasites that are generally found in the intestines of animals likes dogs, cats and pigs. They travel in the host body in search of food. They can travel from one host to another through faeces. When the infected faeces enters the water system, larvae of the tapeworm present in it can travel to the new host who may drink the contaminated water. We can also get infected if we consume fruits and vegetables that may have come in contact with contaminated water. So the first thing we need to ensure is that we do not eat any fruits or vegetables without washing thoroughly.
Secondly, in case someone is already infected with tapeworms and does not follow basic hygienic practises like washing hands after using the toilet, anyone consuming foods touched by them can get infected. Ensure that you wash your hands after using the toilet and before cooking and eating. Also ensure that you do not eat at unsanitary places.
Thirdly, if we consume the meat of animals that may have the tapeworm and that meat is not well-cooked, we can get tapeworm infections. So it is important to buy meat, poultry and pork only from reliable shops.
The tapeworm larvae can enter the nervous system and reach the brain causing NCC.
While the condition is treatable, it is difficult to diagnose. Himanshu, now 18, was just seven years old when he got a tapeworm infection in his brain. "I would get severe headaches, nausea and dizzy spells. When the CT scan was done, the doctors found some tapeworm eggs in my brain. The treatment went for about five years and I had to get several CT scans done to check the success of the treatment," he says. Incidentally, Himanshu is a vegetarian.