An Australian rocker who had to cancel a tour after he collapsed in January says the culprit seems to have been a parasitic infection. Punk band Freznal Rhomb’s lead singer, Jay Whalley, says he picked up a pig tapeworm from a meal he had while on tour in 2009.
The tapeworm is a kind called Taenia solium, which is found not only in some pork products, particularly if undercooked, but also in the soil and water around where the pig has been living. This sort of cross-contamination appears to be how the vegetarian Whalley got infected. Once the tapeworm eggs get into water or soil, anything grown in that soil or prepared with that water, or that has had contact with them, is at risk for contamination. Once ingested, the eggs develop into larvae in the intestines. They’re typically harmless there; this sort of infection, called taeniasis, is asymptomatic and can go unnoticed for months without causing significant damage.
The trouble arises in the form of what is called an invasive infection when the hatched larvae migrate and form cysts in other parts of the body—in Whalley’s case, in his brain. This leads to a condition called cysticercosis, or neurocysticercosis when it happens in the brain. The cysts disrupt organ function wherever they settle. In the brain, this can cause headaches, blurred vision, or seizures, or in extreme cases meningitis, dementia, or even death. The cysts often become inflamed when the tapeworm dies, leading to complications.
In many cases, these infections can be treated medically. Anthelmintic drugs are administered to shrink some tapeworm cysts, monitored by doctors who track the size and make sure the drug is doing what it’s intended to. Anti-inflammatory medications are given to patients whose cysts become inflamed. In some cases, surgery is needed. Whalley said that the surgery to remove his cyst on February 14th took three hours and required a ten-centimeter rectangle to be cut out of his skull. Surgery is also often used to remove cysts from the liver, lungs, and eyes.
Whalley is expected to undergo a complete recovery.