Medical professionals in South Texas have identified another disease that has apparently slipped across the border – caused by a rare brain worm that can be fatal and is being spread by unsanitary food-handling practices.
While not yet classified as a "major outbreak," several cases of cysticercosis have been identified in South Texas, a spokesman for San Antonio's Metro Health District told KENS-TV, San Antonio.
Magnetic resonance image showing multiple cysticerci within patient's brain
According to the Center for Disease Control, cysticercosis is an infection caused by the pork tapeworm, Taenia solium. Infection occurs when the tapeworm larvae are ingested, pass through the intestinal wall and enter the body to form cysticerci, or cysts. The cysts migrate throughout the body, resulting in symptoms that vary depending on whether they lodge in the muscles, the eyes, the brain or spinal cord.
Symptoms for Renaldo Ramirez, 50, of Houston, began with mild headaches.
The tile worker, who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador 20 years ago, told KENS-TV he had been eating most of his meals at mobile kitchens because of the convenience, but after his ordeal with brain worms, he insisted on preparing his own food.
"He's scared now. He's scared of any food from outside," his sister, who interpreted for him, said.
"It was a mild headache, but it wouldn't go away," Ramirez said. "It was just there and it wouldn't go away with Tylenol."
Clinic doctors gave him blood pressure medicine, but a few days later, he passed out and did not awaken for eight days.
Dr. Aaron Mohanty, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Texas Medical School, found and removed a cyst caused by a tapeworm larvae living in Ramirez's brain. Undiagnosed and untreated, he could have died within hours.
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According to the CDC, infection from the tapeworm, which is found worldwide, occurs most often in rural, developing countries with poor hygiene where pigs are allowed to roam freely and eat human feces. This allows the tapeworm infection to be completed and the cycle to continue.
The risk for U.S. citizens has been considered rare due to strict food processing and handling regulations, especially for pork products, and generally high levels of hygiene.
The condition is very rare in Muslim countries where eating pork is forbidden.
"The cycle starts with a human that's infected with the tapeworm," said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, of the UT Houston Medical Center.
Failure to wash hands after using the restroom can result in contaminating food and infecting further victims.
"These eggs hatch in the intestine and go through the gut-wall and into the circulation where they get stuck somewhere," Ostrosky said.
Cysticercosis joins Morgellons disease, a mysterious infection seemingly similar to one documented 300 years ago, in the list of new illnesses spreading throughout South Texas.
While Morgellons disease has not been known to kill and it doesn't appear to be contagious, WND has reported its horrible symptoms are what worry doctors.
"These people will have like beads of sweat but it's black, black and tarry," Ginger Savely, a nurse practitioner in Austin who has treated a majority of Morgellons patients, told the San Antonio Express-News.
Patients infected with the disease get lesions that never heal.
Fibers removed from facial lesion of 3-year-old boy
"Sometimes little black specks come out of the lesions and sometimes little fibers," said Stephanie Bailey, a Morgellons patient.
It's those different-colored fibers that pop out of the skin that may be the most bizarre symptom of the disease.
More than 100 cases have been reported in South Texas.
"It really has the makings of a horror movie in every way," Savely said.
The South Texas outbreak's proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border comes at a time when the issues of illegal immigration, border security and possible amnesty for over 12 million illegal aliens are being debated in the U.S.
Despite Morgellons disease's distinctive symptoms and patients' tales of suffering, most of the medical community don't see the disease as real, with some doctors telling patients it's all in their head.
Morgellons disease may remain a mystery, but cysticercosis does not.
Doctors say washing hands, cooking meats thoroughly, especially pork, and washing fruits and vegetables are the best ways to avoid the disease.