Check out this medical image of a young man’s head and you’ll notice it’s littered with white and grey specks. After carrying out an investigation into these strange marks, doctors found that the man's organs were riddled with cysts caused by the larvae of a parasitic tapeworm.
Writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, doctors from India report the case of an 18-year-old man who came to the ESIC Medical College and Hospital in Faridabad after suffering from a bout of epileptic seizures. Doctors also reported that the young man was confused and suffering from swelling over his right eye and tenderness in the right testicle.
They carried out magnetic resonance imaging of his head, which revealed the presence of numerous cystic lesions throughout the outer layer of his brain. Blood tests later confirmed that these marks were the result of neurocysticercosis, a tissue infection caused by the larval form of Taenia solium tapeworms.
“The infestation usually occurs by ingestion of eggs of the tapeworm,” Dr Nishanth Dev, one of the doctors on the case, told IFLScience.
“The source of the egg could be anything like food or water contaminated with feces containing its eggs. Another source is the consumption of uncooked pork,” he added.
“In our case, since the patient was vegetarian, it was assumed that fecal contamination might have been the cause.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that infections are mainly found in farming communities in the developing countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In these parts of the word, neurocysticercosis could account for nearly a third of all seizure cases.
Remarkably, the WHO estimate that between 2.56 to 8.30 million people could be suffering from cases of the tapeworm infection and neurocysticercosis, although many people with the tapeworm infection will show little to no symptoms. The doctors stress that this example is notably extreme.
“Yes, the burden of the infestation was very high, involving multiple organs as well,” added Dr Nishanth.
The severity of the case suggests the man had been infected for some time; however, they were unable to identify when the infection occurred.
Unfortunately, it proved very difficult to treat the young man. Anti-parasitic drugs can worsen inflammation and lead to a further build-up of water in the extracellular spaces of the brain. Due to the man’s eye lesions, the doctors were also aware that inflammation could lead to a total loss of vision. He was treated with antiepileptic medications but passed away just two weeks later.