Tapeworms: A diet plan with a long list of health risks

Tapeworms are stored in jars at an exhibit Tapeworms are stored in jars at an exhibit on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2001, at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Mass.

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What is typically only an issue in underdeveloped countries (and in the occasional case of eating undercooked meat), tapeworms recently made headlines when the story emerged of a Florida woman who willingly fed her teen daughter the tiny parasites.

In an episode of “Untold Stories of the ER” on Discovery Fit & Health, a nurse recalls when a woman admitted to having fed her daughter a tapeworm pill in an effort to shed a few extra pounds before an upcoming beauty pageant. Doctors weren't sure what was wrong with the girl, who had come to the hospital with a bulging stomach and tummy ache, until the teen went to the bathroom and expelled tapeworms — and the mother explained what she had done.

There have long been tales of the parasites helping people lose weight (as far back as the early 19th century), but Registered Dietitian Nancy Copperman, director of public health initiatives for the North Shore health care system, said those claims are — for all intents and purposes — false.

You're not just losing weight, she said, you're likely very sick. Copperman cited a lengthy list of complications that can be associated with playing host to the parasites — including death.

“You can develop brain and central nervous system impairment . . . and that can cause headaches, visual impairment, meningitis, hydrocephalus (water on the brain), dementia and even death.”

Copperman said that if tapeworm larvae get into a person’s organs, they can form cysts. As the cysts grow, they can crowd out blood supply to the organ, she said. If the cyst ruptures, a flood of new larvae will open up into the body, creating a dangerous cycle.

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As for the woman on the Discovery Channel, Copperman said she was especially disturbed by the story because it involves a child. “Children are growing . . . For every inch they grow it’s like losing 5 pounds.”

“So even if a child is overweight, or obese,” she said, “you know you have to be very careful how much you restrict calories. Kids grow, we don’t.”

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