Doctors Found More Than 100 Tapeworm Eggs in Child's Brain After She Ate Infected Pork

A monkey plays with a pig’s tail in Rajasthan, India, in December 2016. Doctors found more than 100 tapeworm eggs in an 8-year-old girl’s brain after a tapeworm found in contaminated pork laid eggs that traveled through her bloodstream. (Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

An 8-year-old girl in India was plagued by seizures and pounding headaches until a CT scan revealed more than 100 tapeworm eggs had flooded her brain.

Neurologists discovered the eggs, which likely traveled to her brain through her bloodstream after she consumed tapeworm-infested pork, when a particularly severe epileptic fit sent her to Artemis Hospital in Gurugram, the Times of India reported.

Dr. Praveen Gupta, director of the hospital's neurology department, diagnosed the girl with neurocysticercosis, a parasitic infection that causes larval cysts in the brain. The disease is the leading cause of seizures and epilepsy in developing countries, a 2004 study claimed.

Neurocysticercosis is most commonly transmitted by pigs that ingest fecal waste containing the parasitic Taenia solium, or pork tapeworm. The worm can lay up to 50,000 eggs in a pig's stomach that travel throughout its body, parasite expert Carl Zimmer wrote for Discover Magazine. When the eggs become lodged in small blood vessels, they form cysts in the pig's muscles that transfer next to humans who consume undercooked infected pork.

Tapeworms can survive up to 30 years in a human host's intestines, the Mayo Clinic reported, and lay eggs that form cysts in the eyes and muscles. But when the pork tapeworm larvae burrow in the ventricles of the brain, they can damage the flow of cerebrospinal fluid and cause water on the brain or worse—an often-fatal brain hernia.

Doctors were able to locate the larval cysts before they hatched in the girl's brain and killed the eggs with anthelmintic medications. Before physicians discovered the tapeworms, she was previously prescribed steroids that caused her to gain more than 40 pounds and failed to end her seizures, according to the Times of India.

In 2014, the World Health Organization named the pork tapeworm the food-borne parasite of "greatest global concern." Eighty percent of the nearly 50 million people who suffer from epilepsy live in areas prone to parasite infestation. It's particularly common in rural farming communities of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where free-roaming pigs regularly come into contact with human fecal waste.

Identifying neurocysticercosis usually requires a CT scan, which can be exceptionally difficult to access (and afford) in developing countries. Treating it can be even more costly: Patients require prolonged medication and epileptic therapy, which can strain health providers with already scant resources.

But the infection can halt in pigs before it's passed to humans: Fully cooking an infected cut of pork can kill the larvae, WHO said, and vets can vaccinate pigs to resist the parasite entirely. Improved sanitation in food preparation can also prevent an infected human from contaminating meat.