Tuesday, April 11, 2017


Ever heard of Angiostrongylus cantonensis? I bet you have now, even if you know it better as "rat lungworm disease." This brain infecting parasite was caught by two newlywed Californians while they were in Hawaii. Let’s face it, there is something thoroughly unpleasant about the idea of a worm crawling around in your brain. And, what’s more, according to the wife, it is very painful. And as evidenced by the experience of the husband, who spent a month in the ICU and is still hospitalized, the complications from this parasite can be very serious indeed.

So what are parasites? We've all heard of people being called "parasites." The chances are that you may have called your unemployed son a "parasite" at some point. A parasites is an organism that lives on or in a "host" organism and gets its food from it. In the process it can cause a lot of agony and damage to its host.

Parasitic diseases are most common in tropical, low-income countries, especially among the poorer people of those nations. I spent much of my professional life working in such areas, including on health and environmental problems affecting the poor. So guess what? Although I was very careful, I caught a number of parasites. I missed this one, thank goodness. Believe me, any parasite is not much fun at all.

So are we really at risk from them in countries like America and other industrialized nations? The answer is yes. A major reason is the increase in global travel, including to some pretty poor areas where in decades gone by, tourists generally did not go.

And yes, usually you get it from your food or water. In the case of the unlucky couple who are currently in the news, they probably caught the rat lungworm parasite from eating badly washed fruit or a vegetable such as lettuce, which carried this parasite-infected slug, a piece of the slug, or maybe just even just the slime of an infected slug. Or perhaps they got it from undercooked or raw crabs or freshwater shrimps.

What is the food safety lesson from this? Don’t eat raw vegetables (especially lettuce) while in tropical areas and make sure that any shellfish you eat is thoroughly cooked.


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