On December 20, 2010, Sara Alvarez was walking with her son in Sunnyvale, California. Before long, she was unable to feel her right leg and then right foot. When she was taken to Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Hospital by her husband, doctors battled over what was wrong.
A CT scan ultimately revealed the culprit, neurocysticercosis – a calcified tapeworm in her brain.
Neurocysticercosis has becoming more prevalent in the U.S., but is common in other parts of the world.
The Latino community in the U.S. is most affected as neurocysticercosis “primarily exists in marginalized populations, Hispanic immigrants,” Dr. Patricia Wilkins of the Center for Disease Control told Scientific American.
Unfortunately, lack of education on the parasite is common in U.S. Latino communities, and few realize neurocysticercosis is the leading cause of acquired epilepsy worldwide, often hitting developing countries the most. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 1,900 people are diagnosed with the malady, while 50 million are infected around the globe.
Without realizing, migrants can carry the tapeworm across borders, which is often the cause of many cases in the U.S. as those living in a household with a tapeworm carrier have a much higher risk of becoming infected.
Alvarez is believed to have come to the U.S. with it in the 1980s, as she suffered debilitating headaches that often blinded her and caused vomiting.
Neurocysticercosis can be acquired via fecal-oral contact with carriers of the adult tapeworm, drinking water or eating food contaminated with pork tapeworm eggs, or by putting contaminated fingers in your mouth.
Signs of the disease include headaches, paralysis, and seizures.