Way back in September 2014, images claiming to show a man’s body full of tapeworms began circulating on Chinese websites claiming he had contracted them by eating raw fish in the form of sashimi (or raw fish). This story goes viral every few weeks (like many other dramatic, headline grabbers), so heres’s the truth with the help of our friends at Snopes.
The story ended up being passed along and ran by media outlets like BuzzFeed and the Daily Mail, who in turn ran it as news without any research as to whether or not it was real. The article shared many similarities with other false stories claiming to be true, one of which said a man’s brain became “infected with maggots” after he ate sushi.
Chinese website hk.on.cc published an article claiming the X-ray images were legitimate and the man did indeed have tapeworms throughout his entire body.
It turns out the actual story was a bit different.
Recently x-rays were circulated on the Internet showing a body seemingly containing swarms of white insects. The Fifth Affiliated Hospital of Guangdong confirmed that these x-rays were of a patient from the Shunde District who spent 14 days in the hospital after complaining of severe abdominal pains and itchy skin. After the patient revealed one of his favorite foods was raw fish, additional x-rays and a medical examination were undertaken, his condition was judged to be serious, and he was sent to a hospital Guangzhou for further treatment.
Dr. Yin of Guangzhou’s No.8 People’s Hospital said that the dense white spots seen in the x-rays were worms, and that a lot of people are eating infected food containing tapeworm eggs and thereby contracting cysticercosis (i.e., a parasitic pork tapeworm infection that creates cysts in different areas in the body). Dr. Yin pointed out that wild snakes, fish, pork, and beef consumed raw are most likely to be infected with such tapeworms (especially fish raised in freshwater ponds, which are often contaminated with feces).
Dr. Yin also pointed out then when people consume foods containing tapeworm eggs, the eggs make their way into the digestive system where they are absorbed as nutrients. As the eggs hatch, the larvae are spread throughout the body via the bloodstream, and they may even enter into the brain and develop into cerebral cysticercosis. Dr. Yin said that tapeworms in other parts of the body may be treated through methods that kill them, but it is difficult to use such treatment on tapeworms in the brain as it may cause cerebral edema and endanger the patient’s life.
At Guangdong 999 Brain Hospital, neurosurgeon Hai Dengxing said that two months ago he had admitted a female student who complained of cramps and appeared to be suffering from memory loss. The patient said she had recently eaten raw frogs, and a brain scan revealed irregular shadows and white spots which turned out to be parasites infecting her brain.
The tapeworm story had several conflicting details, mainly the fact that it flip-flopped between talking about getting tapeworms from eating raw fish and tapeworms that were solely contracted through eating raw or undercooked pork. The images are very similar to images of a man who had a rare case of disseminated cysticercosis because he ate uncooked pork.
We present the case of a 74-year-old patient who, as an adult, enjoyed eating uncooked pork and beef. Recently, he had suffered from a sudden onset of gait disturbance, memory loss and disturbance of consciousness. He was brought to the emergency department for evaluation. On arrival, his vital signs were stable. The physical examination revealed mild weakness of the right extremities (muscle strength grade 3/5), slurred speech, left facial palsy and general appearance of weakness. ELISA was positive, as were serum and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) parasite antibody immunoglobulin G for cysticercosis. We strongly suspected neurocysticercosis.
The brain CT scan, brain MRI, abdominal CT scan and plain X-rays had a characteristic ‘starry sky’ appearance, revealing calcified foci in muscles. Treatment of neurocysticercosis lesion includes administration of albendazole and steroids, and surgical ventriculoperitoneal shunting to alleviate the symptoms.
Disseminated cysticercosis is a very rare infectious disease. It is important to recognise disseminated cysticercosis clinically and to perform appropriate radiological investigations, because this condition requires an appropriate therapy. Patients who have not undergone treatment and who have active cysts remain at a risk of serious complications.
The images had nothing to do with a tapeworms showing up on an X-ray or sashimi being the cause of his sickness. What you can see are calcified cysts from an infection that spread through his body. The infection itself was the result of eating undercooked pork.