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Parasites: Little Bugs, Big Trouble

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Parasites: Little Bugs, Big Trouble

By Catherine Guthrie, Experience Life

Two weeks after kayaking on the Tennessee River, Kathryn Gage doubled over with a sharp, stabbing sensation in her gut. When the pain morphed into severe diarrhea and nausea, she saw a gastroenterologist.

The 40-year-old Knoxville resident told him she’d downed some river water while rolling her kayak, and she suspected her illness was related. Her intuition was fed by a friend who’d suffered from a parasite she’d picked up overseas and whose symptoms were strikingly similar. But after learning that Gage hadn’t been globetrotting, the specialist dismissed her theory and ordered upper and lower endoscopies instead. Both tests came back normal.

Meanwhile, Gage’s health deteriorated. Usually bubbling over with energy, the entrepreneur and mother of two refused to leave the house for fear she’d have a bathroom emergency. “When I did go out, everyone told me how green I was,” she recalls. Within a month, she dropped 20 pounds, leaving just 115 pounds on her 5-foot, 10-inch frame. Weak and dehydrated, she revisited the doctor, begging him again to test her for parasites. Her fears were unfounded, he said, and he ordered a colonoscopy.

The test didn’t find anything amiss, but during the procedure, the doctor removed a benign polyp and didn’t seal the wound completely. Several days later, Gage’s husband rushed her to the emergency room with life-threatening bleeding. Her physician finally agreed to check her for parasites, and sure enough, she tested positive for Giardia, one of the most common waterborne parasites in the United States. “One quick round of antibiotics and I was completely cured,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it, after all I’d gone through.”

The complications that ensued from Gage’s illness were unusual, but her doctor’s refusal to ponder parasites was not. “Most doctors think parasites only infect people who live in or travel to the tropics,” says Omar Amin, PhD, professor of parasitology and founder of Parasitology Center, a research and testing facility in Tempe, Ariz. “People with this mindset are up for a rude awakening.”

The Bug Boom 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that millions of Americans are sickened by parasites each year and admits the problem is vastly under-reported. “Since many of the conditions are not reportable, we don’t have an accurate estimate of all the cases,” says Monica Parise, MD, chief of the CDC’s Division of Parasitic Diseases.

Amin and other experts believe as many as one in three Americans is hosting parasites. As evidence, he points to his 2002 study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Of the 2,896 patients who submitted stools for testing, 32 percent tested positive for parasitic infections. And the infection rate, Amin notes, is actually underestimated, since many patients don’t get tested for parasites.

Parasites are a big reason why one in four Americans has digestive trouble, Amin says, and many alternative practitioners agree. They note that the diagnosis and treatment of many GI troubles like gallstones are routine, while conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, are tough to explain. The symptoms of these more mysterious ailments – stomach upset, gas, bloating, bleeding and diarrhea – mimic those of a GI parasitic infection.

Just coincidence? Skye Weintraub, ND, doesn’t think so. A naturopathic physician in Eugene, Ore., and author of The Parasite Menace: A Complete Guide to the Prevention, Treatment and Elimination of Parasitic Infection (Woodland Publishing, 1998), Weintraub finds underlying parasitic infections in roughly half of her patients who suffer from chronic GI troubles. “People come to me after they’ve been labeled as having irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis,” she says. “Their doctors tell them they may need drugs for the rest of their lives, but I can often get rid of a parasite, and in a month or two, their symptoms are gone.”

Clinical nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, author of Guess What Came to Dinner? Parasites and Your Health (Avery, 1993), sees a similar trend. “Parasites are an unsuspected cause of many people’s health problems,” she says. “You can only find what you know how to look for, and most conventionally trained doctors don’t know how to look for parasites.”

Both Weintraub and Gittleman admit their specialized knowledge attracts patients with hard-to-treat parasitic infections, which skews their perspectives. But the question they pose is a valid one: Are parasites bugging us more than we think?

Parasites 101

A parasite is simply an organism that leeches nutrients from another, and humans can host hundreds of them. They range in size from the invisible, single-celled pests, like protozoa, to the more biologically complex worms, which are ingested as larvae and can grow to several feet in length.

Crossing paths with a parasite is easy. Contaminated water, undercooked meat, and poorly washed fruits and vegetables are all common pathways not to mention picking them up from animals and other people. (See “Seven Ways to Avoid Parasites at Home,” below.)

Parasites are linked to foreign travel for good reason. Of the 50-million-plus people who travel to the developing world each year, 22 to 64 percent report a travel-related health problem, and up to 8 percent seek medical care during or after their trip, according to a 2006 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Many of these illnesses can be linked to parasites. The three buggiest travel destinations? Central America, South America and South Central Asia.

But staying home won’t necessarily keep you pest-free. Gage, after all, was nearly undone by a parasite without ever leaving Tennessee. And, 40 percent of Amin’s patients get their parasites without pulling out their passports. “With all the foreign travel, parasites move easily from continent to continent,” he says. “There are no barriers anymore.”

So how does a tourist in Bolivia bring a pest back to Boise? Most bugs hopscotch around the world by fecal-oral transmission. Yes, that’s about as disgusting as it sounds, but it happens all the time.

To infect hundreds of people, it takes just one person to get infected abroad, come home and get careless with his personal hygiene, says John Christie, PhD, MD, a medical professor at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

Christie, who studies and teaches parasitology, notes that with global tourism, immigration and even military deployment on the rise, we should expect increases in parasitic infections.

NEXT: How to prevent getting sick at work

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Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

16 comments

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4:25AM PST on Nov 20, 2009

to GypsyGlory
yes constipation can be a sign of serious infection parasites can multiply quickly esp. if your constipated. they produce 100s 1000s of eggs A DAY not weeks or years but DAILY some stay and others are eliminated during a bowel movement. If you are not going then those destined for the tolit hatch and mature into adults who lay eggs. etc. the cycle continues. they in large numbers can make it difficult or impossible to have a bowel movement.There are so many "common" symptoms that get misdiagnosed as other "diseases". Parasites can and do mimick the body in order not to be detected by either the body or test leaving the host to suffer. I had and am still fighting a serious unknwn infection and went a whole year where I had to have enema's and laxatives every day or I didnt produce any bm. that has gotten better but at times when I dont zap I get constipated again real bad. If I let it go for more than 2 days Im in trouble. Sometimes only thing that works is a epsom salt solution that I drink with lots and lots of water. sometimes it takes a couple of those to get me moving. If you are always having a problem and have tried diet changes and increased your water intake added some exercise to your life with no improvement then you had better talk to a dr or better yet send off for the kit at Dr.Omar Amin office and let them test your feces. It will save you a lot of time and money if you do. good luck

9:17AM PST on Nov 7, 2009

When I was a child I was living in Central America b/n/a The Panama, Canal Zone and I fell into a manhole five (5) feet down when I was three (3) years old.
There was dirty water on the bottom of it and on the way down I fell against the wall of the manhole and all of clothes was peeled off so when I landed I had no clothes on and when the water splashed it went into my rectum along with amebas (sp). It took a while but my mother noticed I wasn't gaining weight and when I would eat I bent over in pain and noticed white things in bowl movement so she took me to the doctor.
The only way in those days was to inject stricnine poison (sp) into me every Saturday for an entire year to kill the warms and their eggs without killing me. The only thing I can tell you it worked but as I was growing up I scared to death of shots but from the experience not much really effected me as far as childhood deceases I really didn't get anything except measles (sp) and all of got that at one time.
I am sorry for my bad spelling I hope I got my story over to all of you.

2:04AM PST on Nov 5, 2009

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


r4

3:10PM PDT on Oct 27, 2009

It's interesting to read something about parasites in the U.S. I've been living in South America for 2 years, and parasites are as prevalent here as the common cold, but I've never thought about them being rampant in the U.S. Now I have amo against my germ-a-phobic sister who always makes fun of me when I come back to the U.S., saying she doesn't want me to contaminate her!!!

9:11AM PDT on Oct 27, 2009

The other night on TV I also heard that there were Weapons Of Mass Distraction in Iraq.

If _you_ want to try and catch something nasty in hopes of boosting your immune system, be my guest and tell me how it went...but please don't pass any whatever-it-is on to the rest of us :-p

1:08PM PDT on Oct 26, 2009

as a physician, i would be shocked for a physician not to have tested for giardia lamblia if she indeed gave him the history of drinking river water.

8:04AM PDT on Oct 26, 2009

Ok, all this info is well and good, but I have a question; can one of the symptoms of infection be constipation instead of diarrhea?
If anyone can answer, that'd be swell! (No pun intended. ;)

2:25AM PDT on Oct 26, 2009

Giardia is common....I've contracted it several times travelling through outback Australia and am now more careful about drinking local water in remote areas. It's misery - but easily fixed and I have never had any problems with doctors who readily prescribed the medicine needed.
About parasites: the other night on TV it was claimed that infesting people with hookworm (a parasite quite harmless to humans) helped activate their immune systems and that some asthma & coeliac sufferers improved...??? It appears that we are too sterile for oue own good!

8:36PM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

Wow! I had no idea how prevalent these parasites are. Thank you for this information.

4:19PM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

Ah yes the colonoscopy. It's the latest fad. Methinks that drs are getting generous kickbacks for sending people off to have these things. They do them for everything from a headache to an ingrown toenail these days. The dr and his mates got in a few unnecessary tests as usual. Honestly, how unprofessional to send her off for a colonoscopy before doing a simple test for parasites.

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