|Source:||Los Angeles Times, 8/15/96
|Title:||A Parasitic Worm Underscores the Risks of Eating Raw or Lightly Cooked Delicacies
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The Los Angeles Times ran a really scary story on 8/15/96, about parasitic worms that can infect humans who eat raw or undercooked fish. This digested version appeared in a recent edition of the eGG-Roll, and a reader's response from last week follows it.
The Times cited an example of a retired surgeon who ate gravlax (brine-cured raw salmon). He loved the stuff but a few days later a "red-hot pain pierced his abdomen, which began to swell." He rushed to the hospital, where other surgeons agreed that, from the tests, there was a large mass obstructing his small intestine, and it looked like a tumor—a life-threatening one. In surgery that day, doctors removed the mass as well as part of the intestine. The 'tumor' was sent to pathology. The next day, the man suffered internal bleeding which was stopped after two transfusions. The man left the hospital 10 days after his first gravlax taste and 5 days after hospital admission.
When the pathologist examined the 'tumor,' he discovered what it really was: a massive clump of white blood cells which had rallied together to surround and fight off a one-inch nematode worm. Known as herring or seal worms (anisakis simplex), they live in the bellies of marine mammals and pass through their systems to fishes. While the worms themselves cannot live more than a few weeks or reproduce in humans, they can wreak severe damage by fastening themselves onto a surface with a spike "boring tooth," as this story shows.
According to the article, cooking fish to 145 degrees or freezing to minus 4 degrees F. kills these parasites. So does thorough chewing. While they are uncommon in humans, and sometimes cause no symptoms, they have been added to the list of food-borne infectious diseases that physicians in California must report. Does this mean you should stop eating sushi and gravlax? No health advisory has been issued to that effect, but you may want to frequent only the best places and be aware that symptoms may be mistaken for appendicitis, ulcers, gastritis or a tumor. And one other thing—the worm is not at home in our bodies either: they will try to crawl out and escape, producing what parasitologists call "tingling throat syndrome." Yech!
To be forewarned is to be forearmed...
The above digest ran in a recent eGG-Roll newsletter, prompting this letter from a favorite reader:
Whew! That story on the surgeon and the gravlax was scarier than the extraterrestrials in Independence Day! and the occurrence of such medical crises may be more common than we'd like to think.
A decade ago I worked as a freelance correspondent for Time magazine's West Coast bureau. Because I liked it, I was assigned a lot of the medical reporting. Somewhere around 1988 or' 89, a couple of Berkeley researchers released a study that warned that the growing American affinity for sushi and sashimi was resulting in an upswing of the nematode you outlined in the most recent eGG-Roll. When I interviewed the study's lead researcher (who is Japanese-American, if memory serves correctly), I asked what she'd suggest people do to combat the possibility of contracting this icky parasite.
Her response? "Let's put it this way," she said carefully (and off the record); "I love sushi, but I don't eat it anymore." Me too, and I don't either, after seeing the photos of the damage those little buggers can do to your intestine.
Eliminating time-honored favorites from our diets is hard. I grew up in Connecticut where summer rituals revolved around slurping cherrystones (splashed with Tabasco and a grind of black pepper) every summer. We don't do that anymore. Nor do I allow my five year-old to lick the batter from the beaters, thanks to the widened possibility of salmonella. Burgers are never eaten bloody rare, the way I loved them. and we have to wash the pesticides off the fruits and vegetables (so much for plucking a fresh pippin off the tree!) before we eat them. Is it a drag? For sure. But that's the price we pay for progress, and I'd rather give up a few things, even celestial ones, like raw oysters (there's always barbecued oysters, or Oysters Rockefeller) to enjoy the vast bounty still available to American diners without playing the medical equivalent of Russian Roulette.
Wishing you healthy and safe eating,
Karen Grigsby Bates