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The legend of the “cutter worm”

Everyone, at least once in their life, in the throes of an impulsive and insatiable hunger, worried about having the "cutter" worm. I remember that, when I was a child I could not satiate myself with lunch and despite eating a lot, I was almost underweight, my parents used to ask me "do you have a cutter worm?" with a mixt of humour and anxiety.

Who and what is this worm? Does it really exist or is it a legend told to children to keep them from eating too much?

No invented stories, the worm in question has a name and surname, indeed, genus and species: Tenia Solium. This cute (but not too much) cestode is commonly known as “solitary worm” and although in the common imagination it is represented as a small snake, as an adult it can reach 8 meters in length.

The apical part is made up of the scolex, which cannot be called head, the adhesion organ of the tapeworms consisting of four suckers that serve the parasite to adhere to the tissues of the host organism. The habitat of the Tenia Solium is the upper part of the jejunum (small intestine) and its life cycle can last up to 25 years! Incredible, isn’t it? Furthermore, the terminal part includes pregnant proglottids which can release up to 50,000 eggs after they break.

Infection with the Tenia Solium is consequent to the ingestion of contaminated pork meat with a cyst. This, once established in the host's small intestine, continues its maturation process until it becomes an adult. This in turn, to continue the cycle, produces eggs that can also be released through the faeces of the host organism, starting a new cycle.

Can eating insatiably really be considered a symptom of this infection?

The adult worm tends to cause an inflammation of the intestinal mucosa of the host organism caused by the mechanical irritation of the adhesion of the scolex’s suckers. It can rarely degenerate into intestinal perforation, with consequent complications. The most common symptoms include strong appetite, sense of weakness and fatigue according to a caloric deficit and vitamin deficiencies due to the exploitation of tissues and nutrients by the worm, diarrhoea alternating with constipation, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.

However, as these are generic symptoms, this parasite can live undisturbed in our body for a long period of time.

The worst consequence that the solitary worm can cause is cysticercosis: the eggs, ingested or released by this tapeworm can move because of the peristaltic and physiological movements of our body and become encysted in different parts of the body. Sometimes, they can reach the brain or the eye causing particularly annoying symptoms and damage.

So, how to prevent the onset of problems related to this cestode?

A correct diagnosis and treatment of the patient is essential as it reduces the risk of future infections or self-infections. Certainly, a personal and environmental hygiene is important, but the most effective preventive prophylaxis is the correct cooking process of pork meat. Cysticerci do not survive above 45°C and pork meat should be cooked for a long time to prevent their survival.

For which concern the preservation of the meat, it can be frozen at a temperature below -2°C below which the larvae do not survive.

For these reasons, it is important to buy these and other types of fresh products of animal origin only if sold in hygienically sufficient conditions, in packages that show data regarding the origin of the meat, the packaging date and the expiry date.

Unfortunately, cultural and culinary habits, regarding the preparation of meat, make this type of infection particularly frequent in different areas of the world but a right awareness helps the consumer to be actively involved and knowledgeable.

Finally, do not be afraid to eat more pasta, or to ask for an encore when you feel like it! The “cutter worm” is not found everywhere and in most cases is easily eliminated.

We can definitely sleep safely indeed eat peacefully!

Articolo a cura di: Marco Terrana

Information written in this article does not replace the instructions and advices of your doctor. For more material or clarifications, contact your family doctor or a specialist.

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