In some schools in China’s western Sichuan province, bathrooms are pit latrines, soap is rarely available and faucets often don’t work. Many children who board at the schools during the week have only one or two sets of clothing that they wear – and sleep in – for days at a time.
These conditions, in regions where poverty is high, pigs roam freely, and indoor toilets are largely absent, may contribute to the transmission of a tapeworm infection that is among the leading causes for epilepsy cases in the developing world, according to a recent Stanford-led study. Lead author John Openshaw, MD, discussed the research in a video and news release from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment:
While historically researchers have studied adults with this disease, the burden on kids and what that burden means for affected countries in terms of lost productivity and lost income is unknown. We hope our work will fuel interest in figuring that out.
Openshaw and his team tested fifth- and sixth-grade students for antibodies for neurocysticercosis, a potentially-fatal infection of the central nervous system associated with the tapeworm Taenia solium. They found the antibodies present in as many as 22 percent of tested children in some schools, which was a rate higher than that of adults in surrounding villages.
These findings were significant because, though the tapeworm initially spreads through human consumption of contaminated pork, transmission among humans leads to the most serious infections. As the release explains:
The disease can take a tragic turn when people directly consume the tapeworm eggs, either through contact with a person who has the eggs on their hands and clothing or by eating food contaminated with the eggs. In those cases, the tapeworm migrates out of the human digestive tract and can invade the brain. Symptoms of this infection can range from chronic headaches to seizures to psychiatric disturbances such as hallucinations.
Having pinpointed schools as possible “hotbeds of transmission,” Openshaw and his colleagues are moving forward with plans for interventions. In addition to community education and vaccines for pigs, they’re working to distribute medications in schools, install working hand-washing stations and integrate good hand hygiene into student lessons.
"The tools to eradicate this disease are available,” Openshaw said. “We hope that as the true burden of this disease on children becomes clearer, governments and nongovernmental actors will commit more resources."
Photo of a school girl in China's Sichuan province by John Openshaw