In an exclusive follow-up to our story on the rise of tapeworm cases in the U.S. — and Houston, in particular — Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology, goes on the record on what could be causing an infection associated with developing countries to crop up in the U.S..
Last week, Dr. Hotez noted that he is seeing an increased number of documented tapeworm cases in Houston, remarking that, “The disease has now become a leading cause of epilepsy in Houston. Every [week], we have patients come into our tropical medicine clinic with it.” BioNews Texas reached out to Dr. Hotez to follow up on why tapeworm — an infection generally associated with developing countries and unsanitary conditions — is on the rise in the U.S., and why Houston in particular.
Dr. Hotez explained to us that:
“. . . cysticercosis, commonly referred to as “tapeworm,” is one of several so-called “neglected tropical diseases” (NTDs) affecting people living in poverty mostly in the Southern United States. NTDs are chronic parasitic and related infections that cause long-term disabilities. In addition to cysticercosis, toxocariasis, trichomoniasis, arbovirus infections, and Chagas disease are all prevalent in the southern United States as well.
I sometimes call them “the most important infections you have never heard of” primarily because they disproportionately affect people living in poverty and people of color.”
Hotez’ observations are consistent with recent news stories outlining his concern for Chagas diseases in the U.S. and a renewed focus on treating the disease in the state, thanks to new breakthroughs at the UT Medical Branch. However, as for the cause of this perceived increase in NTDs like tapeworm, Dr. Hotez is not so sure that there is even really an increase in infection as much as an increase in awareness:
” . . . these are ‘Forgotten People, Forgotten Diseases’ – they are unstudied even though quite common. So when you ask why they are on the rise, I have to counter by saying we don’t really know if they are truly on the rise or whether they have been around for hundreds of years and no one has been looking!”
While that may be the case, the underlying cause of how a disease like tapeworm — which is usually transmitted as a result of undercooked food, poor housing conditions, contact with fecal matter, or contaminated drinking water — could come to be a leading cause of neurological illness in a U.S. city like Houston, which ostensibly enjoys a high standard of living compared to developing countries, remains an important question. The answer to this question still remains elusive, and is one of many answers that Dr. Peter Hotez and the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor are currently exploring.
In the meantime, Dr. Hotez continues to advocate for increased awareness and funding for forgotten diseases like tapeworm, and the forgotten people that are primarily affected by them.
Be sure to keep a lookout for the new Second Edition release of Dr. Peter Hotez’ landmark book, “Forgotten People, Forgotten Diseases,” with a Foreword by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, published by the American Society for Microbiology Press, due out on April 22nd.
Read our Peter Hotez info page at BioNews Texas