The number of people afflicted with brain tapeworms worldwide has been "grossly underestimated," a new study warns. The brain tapeworms, which cause a disease called neurocysticercosis, are most common in Central and South America. While the disease is rare in the US and Europe, the disease is "still frequently diagnosed" in migrant populations from the endemic areas, the study says. The researchers also estimate that in areas where the disease originated, 29 percent of epilepsy cases are caused by brain tapeworms. "Overall, 1.7 to 3 million persons are conservatively estimated to suffer from epilepsy due to NCC worldwide," the study says.
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“Nobody knows exactly how many people there are with it in the United States,” the study's lead author, Theodore Nash, told Discover Magazine. Nash and other experts on the topic have been traveling through Latin America with CT scanners and blood tests to test populations for the disease, Discover reported. In a study in Peru, they found that 37 percent of the people they looked at had been infected by the tapeworm. Nash's study also shows that in Latin America, brain tapeworms may afflict up to 29 million people.
People can contract tapeworms from eating undercooked pork or from ingesting food or drink contaminated by feces from an infected person, the New York Times reported.
Nash sees a few dozen patients a year with brain tapeworms at his clinic in Maryland, Discover reported. His patients have come in paralyzed on one side of their body, unable to walk, unable to speak or partially blind. Some have had violent seizures and one went into a coma. But Nash stresses there are solutions to stopping the disease from starting, such as vaccinating pigs or giving drugs to people already infected so it won't spread. “All of this seems to be very feasible, but nobody wants to do anything about it,” he told Discover.