EWW! IS THAT A PARASITE?

If the thought of an or­gan­ism liv­ing off your body makes your skin crawl, re­lax: most of the time you won’t even no­tice them (and if you do, treat­ment is quick and easy)

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Front Page - BY FRANCES SHER­MAN IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY TRACY WALKER

ONE NIGHT, A COU­PLE of hours after Al­li­son McKen­zie* put her four-yearold daugh­ter to bed, Emma* woke up say­ing she felt some­thing “down there.” McKen­zie turned on the light to see what was go­ing on and screamed: there was a small, white, thread-like worm near Emma’s vagina. Us­ing a tis­sue, McKen­zie shoved it in a sealed plas­tic bag.

The fol­low­ing day, a doc­tor looked at the spec­i­men and con­firmed what McKen­zie had dis­cov­ered by fran­ti­cally googling in the night: Emma had pin­worms. But after tak­ing two doses of an an­tipar­a­sitic drug—which was pre­scribed to the en­tire fam­ily, since the par­a­sites can spread quickly—and clean­ing both the house and the bed­ding, the worms were erad­i­cated.

Most peo­ple are re­volted when they find out they’ve been host­ing a parasite, de­fined as an or­gan­ism that uses other liv­ing things—like you—for food or habi­tat. But Dr. Jay Key­stone, pro­fes­sor of medicine at the Univer­sity

of Toronto and staff physi­cian in the trop­i­cal dis­ease unit at Toronto Gen­eral Hospi­tal, says par­a­sites aren’t usu­ally some­thing to fear, as long as you aren’t im­muno­com­pro­mised.

Typ­i­cally, we don’t even know we’re har­bour­ing vis­i­tors, but we can fall ill when the or­gan­ism’s num­bers are sig­nif­i­cant. In such cases, it’s best to be pre­pared. So here are five of the most com­mon par­a­sites Cana­di­ans should know about.

1. GI­A­R­DIA LAM­BLIA

What is it and how can I get it? This sin­gle-cell parasite takes up res­i­dence in the small in­tes­tine. Many wild or do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals carry it, and peo­ple can con­tract it from swim­ming in fresh­wa­ter where there is an­i­mal fe­ces. One of the an­i­mals known to trans­mit the parasite is the beaver, which is why gi­a­r­dia lam­blia is com­monly known as beaver fever. It can also be passed from per­son to per­son when some­one doesn’t wash their hands prop­erly after defe­cat­ing, which makes day­care cen­tres par­tic­u­larly vulnerable. An­other po­ten­tial mode of trans­mis­sion is anal sex.

I have it. Now what?

Though many peo­ple will never know they had the parasite, some will de­velop di­ges­tive symp­toms such as wa­tery di­ar­rhea, nau­sea, bloat­ing, fever and ab­dom­i­nal cramps. The ill­ness can be eas­ily treated with an oral an­tipar­a­sitic med­i­ca­tion.

2. CRYP­TOSPORID­IUM

What is it and how can I get it? Much like gi­a­r­dia lam­blia, cryp­tosporid­ium is a sin­gle-cell in­testi­nal parasite. It’s found in the stool of young cows, sheep and goats and can make its way into bod­ies of wa­ter through an­i­mal fe­ces. Like gi­a­r­dia, it can also be passed around among kids at school.

Dr. Mo­mar Ndao, direc­tor of the Na­tional Ref­er­ence Cen­tre for Par­a­sitol­ogy and an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in the in­fec­tious diseases di­vi­sion at McGill Univer­sity, says cryp­tosporid­ium can con­tam­i­nate mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter sup­plies. In 2001, there was an in­fa­mous out­break in North Bat­tle­field, Sask., that made thou­sands of peo­ple sick.

I have it. Now what?

This parasite is associated with what Key­stone calls “very, very se­vere di­ar­rhea” that can last up to two weeks. While most healthy in­di­vid­u­als beat it on their own, a doc­tor can pre­scribe an an­tipar­a­sitic med­i­ca­tion, though cryp­tosporid­ium doesn’t re­spond to treat­ment as quickly as gi­a­r­dia does.

3. TOX­O­PLASMA GONDII

What is it and how can I get it? Tox­o­plasma is a sin­gle-cell or­gan­ism that lives in the blood and bod­ily tis­sues. Key­stone says up to a quar­ter of Cana­di­ans have been in­fected at some point, but most don’t know it.

Tox­o­plasma is found in an­i­mals like cats, sheep and pigs. Of­ten, peo­ple be­come in­fected from con­tact with

soil or a lit­ter box where an­i­mal fe­ces has bro­ken down, or from eat­ing un­der­cooked meat from an in­fected an­i­mal. I have it. Now what?

If you do get sick, the ill­ness may look a lot like mono: fever, en­larged lymph nodes and mus­cle aches. It will go away on its own, but you can ask your doc­tor for an an­tipar­a­sitic to help.

In some cases, tox­o­plasma can lie dor­mant in the body in the form of cysts in the eye, brain and else­where. These cysts aren’t cause for con­cern—un­less you be­come im­muno­com­pro­mised, in which case they can rup­ture. The other grave dan­ger is if a per­son be­comes in­fected while preg­nant. When a fe­tus con­tracts tox­o­plasma, it can lead to se­ri­ous birth de­fects like hy­dro­cephalus and se­vere vi­sion prob­lems, or mis­car­riage. Ndao stresses that any­one who is preg­nant should avoid lit­ter boxes.

4. PIN­WORMS

What are they and how can I get them?

Ndao says that a very high pro­por­tion of chil­dren will be­come in­fected with pin­worms at some point. Most suf­fer­ers don’t know they have these worms, which live in the lower bowel—un­less they’re tipped off by itch­i­ness at their rec­tum or in their vagina. Kids are most com­monly in­fected be­cause of im­proper hand­wash­ing and scratch­ing at the site, then putting their fin­gers in their mouths, caus­ing them to in­gest pin­worm eggs. I have them. Now what?

Pin­worms can be treated with a pill that’s re­peated 14 days later, but to pre­vent re­in­fec­tion it’s im­por­tant to wash hands reg­u­larly, wear un­der­wear and py­ja­mas to bed, thor­oughly wash the sheets and clean the house—the tiny eggs can sur­vive for a week in the dust around your home.

5. SCA­BIES

What is it and how can I get it? Sca­bies is a skin con­di­tion caused by ec­topar­a­sites—mites that live and feed on the skin. These mites are among the most com­monly con­tracted par­a­sites and are spread through touch. Though sca­bies isn’t nec­es­sar­ily sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted, it’s of­ten shared through pro­longed skin-to-skin con­tact. Less fre­quently, it can be spread through tow­els, clothes or linens. The mi­cro­scopic mites cause an itchy rash that will con­tinue un­til you’ve tack­led it.

I have it. Now what?

For­tu­nately, treat­ment is quite sim­ple and usu­ally in­volves ap­ply­ing a top­i­cal cream twice, clean­ing your sheets and con­tain­ing re­cently worn clothes in a sealed bag for a few days. If you’re im­muno­com­pro­mised, how­ever, mite pop­u­la­tions can grow rapidly and cause an in­fes­ta­tion called crusted sca­bies. While a reg­u­lar in­fec­tion might in­volve ap­prox­i­mately 10 mites, crusted sca­bies can in­volve thou­sands or even mil­lions and may lead to a much more se­vere rash.

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