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Updated 09 October 2020

Woman discovers her headaches were caused by tapeworm larvae in her brain

Doctors found tapeworm larvae in the brain of a woman who had been complaining about a headache for more than a week.

  • In a recent case, a cyst containing tapeworm larvae was found in a woman's brain
  • She was diagnosed with neurocysticercosis, a deadly condition
  • This can be prevented by cooking meat at the right temperature and practising good hygiene 

A 25-year-old woman in Australia was found to have tapeworm larvae lurking in her brain after suffering from a week-long headache, doctors reported in a new case study.

She was eventually diagnosed with neurocysticercosis, a parasitic disease caused by ingesting microscopic eggs from a pork tapeworm (Taenia solium).

Her diagnosis was an unusual one, doctors wrote, as she had no risk factors for the condition. The case report was published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Persistent headache, an MRI, and a diagnosis

According to the report, the woman had lived with migraines with visual "auras" on a regular basis since the age of 18.

However, this time her headaches seemed a little different as the painkillers, which usually helped to treat her headaches, were not working. Her visual symptoms were also more severe, sometimes causing blurry vision.

She eventually went to the hospital where she underwent an MRI of her head, which revealed a single brain lesion. Doctors suspected it was either a brain abscess or tumour, but when they performed brain surgery to remove the lesion, they, to their great surprise, discovered a cyst – that didn't consist of human tissue.

Further tests showed that the cyst contained tapeworm larvae, and she was diagnosed with neurocysticercosis.  

What is neurocysticercosis?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), neurocysticercosis is a “preventable parasitic infection of the central nervous system and is caused by the pork tapeworm Taenia solium".

The organisation notes that millions of tapeworm eggs are excreted into the environment via the faeces of infected people. Pigs sometimes end up ingesting these eggs, leading to cysts developing throughout their body.

Humans can become infected by consuming undercooked food, particularly pork, or water contaminated with tapeworm eggs. Infection can also occur through poor hygiene practices – tapeworm carriers can pass on the parasite if they don't wash their hands properly, for instance.

When the eggs hatch, the larvae can travel throughout the body, including to the brain, muscles, skin and eyes, where they form cysts. Neurocysticercosis is the most severe form of the disease, and a common cause of seizures worldwide, WHO explains.

A previous Health24 article explains that, generally, pigs that roam free in rural areas easily contract these cysts, since they often eat human waste.

In the Australian case, the woman’s cyst was removed and she did not require further treatment for the infection. 

First native case in Australia

In their report, doctors mentioned that this is the first “locally acquired” case of the disease in Australia.

The tapeworm is endemic to countries in developing nations, such as Latin America, Africa and Asia, and the woman had never travelled overseas, nor did she report having any previous or current contact with anyone from one of these areas.

Since the woman works as a barista, doctors suspected that she may have picked it up through her job, which entailed "ongoing casual contact with people from a variety of geographical regions".

However, if this were the case, it would still be very rare, since thousands of people work in the Australian hospitality sector and haven’t caught the infection, they wrote, although they added that "sporadic infection can occur in people who would otherwise be considered at no or very low risk of infection with T. solium”.

The authors concluded that they hope the unusual features of their case raises awareness among physicians of the risk of this type of infection occurring in non-endemic countries.

 
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