Parasitic Infections Are a Big Problem in the United States

Parasitic Infections

The industrialized Western culture of the United States can easily forget to think about parasitic infections, which are often the cause of health horrors in underdeveloped countries across the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a report warning the public that parasitic infections are a bigger problem in the United States than people may think.

Parasites are simply organisms that feed off of other organisms, and many choose humans as their host.  There are five particular parasitic infections that the CDC is moving toward the top of the public health priority list.  According to its new report released Thursday, these five diseases are often “neglected” in the U.S., by the general public and public health community.

The CDC report states that more research on treatment and prevention in the U.S. is needed for the five parasitic infections that produce severe illness and affect a significant number of people.  Further, they’re easy targets for treatment and prevention.  While this seems like common sense rather than news, the CDC report emphasizes that parasitic infections are a big problem in the United States because they can be tricky to identify. Many have few symptoms and go completely unnoticed. The infections highlighted in the report are described here.

Chagas disease is caused by a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, which travels in bloodsucking bugs like mosquitoes.  Each year, Chagas disease afflicts 300,000 people living in the U.S. and more than 300 babies are born infected.  This parasite damages the heart and nervous system.

Cysticercosis is found in pork tapeworm, so humans may eat a “bad” piece of meat and ingest the parasite. This infection affects brain tissue, causing seizures and death. The CDC reported that approximately 1,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized each year as a result of neurocysticercosis.

Toxocariasis can lead to blindness, and the parasite hitchhikes around in man’s best friends, cats and dogs.  Toxocariasis is caused by the Toxocara parasite found in feline and canine roundworms, and is so pervasive and common that an estimated 14 percent of the entire U.S. population has been exposed to it.  At least 70 people go blind from this infection each year, mostly children.

Toxoplasmosis affects over 60 million people.  The parasite that causes this condition, Toxoplasma gondii, can actually chronically infect people and many never even know it.  People can become infected with toxoplasmosis by eating undercooked meat or contaminated food.  Toxoplasmosis can be deadly for people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant women that acquire a new infection can deliver a baby born with birth defects.

Trichomoniasis is caused by the Trichomonas parasite and it spreads through the population as a sexually transmitted disease.  Some of the disturbing outcomes of this sexually transmitted disease include pregnancy complications and an increased risk for other sexually transmitted infections such as HIV.  Trichomoniasis affects 3.7 million people in the U.S. each year.

While the thought of parasites in general are uncomfortable to fathom and the CDC report lists some disturbing facts and figures about common infections, it also emphasizes that they are all easily preventable and treatable.

The CDC is hoping that increasing research efforts on these infections will lead to a better means of educating health care providers and the general public about how to identify symptoms and seek treatment.

As the world gets smaller and travel becomes easier, albeit more expensive, it no longer matters where on the globe a parasitic infection has its origins.  The more people travel, the more the public can expect parasitic infections to remain a big problem in the U.S. and abroad.

Nonetheless, the authors of a report stated that starting to pay more attention at home will likely spread benefit across the globe.  The neglected parasitic infections noted in the U.S. are a global problem, and any solutions found locally will help inform new strategy globally.

By Erica Salcuni

Health Day

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