Excerpts From: Parasites: Exposing the Connection

Ann Louise Gittleman - 7/15/2002

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You don't have to go far to find a potential parasite problem. In fact, it may actually be closer than you think. Parasitic infection knows no economic or territorial boundaries. It can strike you, me, your neighbor, your boss-anyone. Here are some of the more common portals these nasty vixens use to invade your life and destroy your health.

International Travel: Americans spend a lot of time and money traveling to foreign shores. But it's not unusual for many of them to return home with more than overstuffed suitcases of souvenirs. The Division of Infectious Diseases stated in an article that cyclospora has been "identified in both residents and travelers from various regions including North America, Central America, and South America; the Caribbean Islands; Eastern Europe; India; South Africa; and Southeast Asia.

Foreign Cuisine: How we love to eat exotic foods, like sushi, sashimi, ceviche, and Dutch herring. But these specialties, along with undercooked meats like pork or beef, often present tremendous parasitic potential. They may host tapeworms, roundworms, and hookworms. And don't forget that imported produce we cherish. Approximately 1,000 people became ill after being infected with the parasite cyclospora in 1996. The cause was tainted raspberries imported from Guatemala. A similar scenario occurred in 1997 when a wedding party ate contaminated raspberries from Guatemala and Chile. Another report surfaced in 1998. Dozens of Texan business execs fell victim to the same type of parasite after a luncheon.

Our Sugar Quest: Americans and parasites have one thing in common-sugar. We love it so much that we each devour nearly 150 pounds of the sweet stuff annually. Unfortunately for us, parasites flourish in a sugary environment. And our enormous consumption of complex carbohydrates doesn't help. With all that low-fat/no-fat hype-fat-free yogurt, cookies, breads, crackers-blood sugar and insulin levels skyrocket. Inevitably, that unlocks the door for parasitic organisms, not to mention critical health problems such as obesity, yeast infections, type II diabetes, attention deficit disorder, and asthma.

Water Contamination: Even here in the US, the reigning power of the world, contaminated water poses the threat of parasitic infection. In a 1995 article, Parasitology Today cited the extremely infectious cryptosporidium as the primary cause "in waterborne outbreaks in the USA and in children in tropical, developing areas." Not only is this waterborne parasite invisible, but also it resists chlorine treatment. The other major danger lurking in water is giardia. First discovered in the West, it has become the second-most prevalent parasite. Some experts believe over 50% of our water supplies are infected with giardia, which also can't be killed with chlorination. Most importantly, a National Institutes of Health announcement says there are "many parasitic diseases such as giardiasis and cryptosporidiosis [that] are not always reported to health authorities, so that we suspect the extent and impact of parasitic diseases in the United States is underestimated." Is it any wonder that bottled water and water filtration systems have become such big business today?

And in other areas, such as Southeast Asia, East Africa, South America, and Thailand, drug-resistant parasites are posing a new medical crisis. Of course, malaria still remains a problem. It is one of the most lethal parasitic diseases, causing nearly 2 million deaths annually in over 100 countries. Giardia, which causes mysterious symptoms resembling irritable bowel syndrome or chronic fatigue, can plague tourists to Nepal. Visitors to China may come home with a coughing or wheezing caused by roundworm infection. Ever been to Africa? The International Travelers Hotline advises tourists who go there to beware of swimming, bathing, or wading in fresh water. The water could be infested with parasitic blood flukes, which burrow into the skin and make their way to the bloodstream.

Antibiotics: Using antibiotics has become commonplace over the past 30 years. However, there is a downside. They can demolish the good and the bad bacteria, sliding the door open for parasitic infection. And since they can disrupt the balance in the gastrointestinal tract and vagina, yeast overgrowth and trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted condition found in 50% of all women throughout the US, may occur. Men can also be affected by developing nonspecific urethritis.

Daycare Centers: With many working parents, daycare centers are a dire necessity. But they are often the source of a giardia outbreak. Poor diaper-changing practices are the chief source of the problem. Since many of the caretakers aren't using disposable gloves, the giardia cysts lodge beneath their fingernails, where it can easily be spread from person to person. As a matter of fact, giardiasis has become so problematic in these centers that a health expert classified them as the "open sewers of the century." In an effort to understand the cause of increased outbreaks, a 1997 Wall Street Journal article quoted a New York City pediatrician as "attributing the cases to exotic vacations and the growth of daycare for diaper-aged children." Approximately 20,000 cases of giardiasis occur each year, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). A Georgian city stated that around 25% of their daycare children had been infected with the parasite. And yet New Haven, Connecticut, reported double that rate-50%!

Household Pets: There are over 110 million cats and dogs residing in American homes. They carry a lot of love-and the potential of nearly 240 diseases. And since dogs enjoy snooping, they may also pick up giardia by ground water or smelling animal waste. Routinely deworming cats or dogs isn't necessarily the answer either, as their infections could recur. Pregnant women and children are at higher risk, becoming seriously ill from dog and cat roundworm, hookworm, and cat-transmitted toxoplasmosis. In fact, anyone with a compromised immune system could find these types of parasitic infections life-threatening. But hold on-it's not just dogs and cats posing a problem. The San Luis Obispo Telegram Tribune carried a story in 1998 about a one-year-old child who was "hospitalized after being infected by a rare, potentially deadly parasitic disease carried by raccoons ... the child ... apparently contracted the illness by ingesting microscopic roundworm eggs that are commonly found in raccoon feces." The article went on to report that the parasite infection could also be transmitted via birds, rodents, and rabbits.

Sex: The more sexual partners we have, the greater the chance of contracting sexually transmitted parasites: trichinosis, chlamydia, pinworms, and tapeworms. Certain practices (anal and oral sex) increase the possibility of infection. Because parasitic diseases like Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, cryptosporiodiosis, and strongyloidiasis have escalated since the AIDS epidemic, there may be a link between parasites and AIDS.

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Excerpts From: The New Parasite Epidemic

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