Kennedy’s infection sheds light on parasitic dangers

New Wave Nightingale(July 3, 2024) — When news of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr.’s bout with a parasite dropped last month, it brought to light the dizzying possibilities of sci-fi level infections.

In Kennedy’s case, the most likely culprit is thought to be Cysticercosis, an infection of tapeworm larvae. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this tapeworm, more formally known as Taenia solium, is transmitted through the ingestion of its eggs. The larvae are drawn to nutrient-rich tissues such as muscle, brains and eyes.

Once established in vivo, they form cysts called cysticerci. When cysts develop in the brain or central nervous system, it is called Neurocysticercosis. While this is a truly disturbing picture, there is some reassuring news.

“It is absolutely incorrect that this form of T. solium ‘eats’ brain tissue,” declares Stephen Felt, a professor of comparative medicine at Stanford University. “In fact, the human immune system recognizes it as foreign material and walls it off by forming a cyst and the larva then dies.”

While this mechanism is effective in isolating the problem, it causes other issues. Pria Anand, an assistant professor of neurology and director of Boston University’s Neurology Residency Program, completes the picture for us: “The human body’s immune/inflammatory response to the dying worm, or the physical presence of a calcified dead worm, remains lodged within the brain.”

While stuck there, it may lead to a host of issues. Anand states that Neurocysticercosis can cause “epilepsy, as well as blindness, increased pressure in the brain, weakness and headaches.”

In many infected people, it will remain dormant for years. Once diagnosed, it is generally successfully treated with anti-parasitic and anti-inflammatory medications.

Rare disease

While a significant problem globally, parasitic diseases such as Neurocysticercosis are rare in the Unites States. The CDC sees fewer than 1,000 cases per year.

Lori Ferrins, a research associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University, is an expert in neglected parasitic disease. She states, unequivocally, that the primary cause is consuming raw or undercooked pork.

“Parasitic infection tends to occur in unsanitary environments, when pigs are exposed to human excrement, consume the fecal matter and are then consumed by humans,” Ferrins continues.

Exercising extreme caution in the preparation and consumption of pork products is vital if one is unwilling to simply avoid them altogether. Aside from that, the importance of hand hygiene cannot be overstated. Anything transmitted via the fecal/oral route, including the eggs of tapeworms, is preventable if we maintain awareness of and vigilance around keeping our hands clean.

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Nathalie Montijo
Nathalie Montijo
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Nathalie Raven Archangel-Montijo holds a rather interesting array of degrees and certifications, including master’s in nursing and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). She has post-master certification as an adult geriatric primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP) and a license to practice acupuncture in California (L.Ac). To round all that out, she is certified in infection prevention and control (CIC) and as an advanced certified Hospice and palliative care nurse (ACHPN).

She also performs in the outlaw country band, Nineteen Hand Horse.