Mysterious Fatal Disease Caused By Eating Raw Centipedes

“Why?”

The answer to that question is “Because it’s there” when asked of mountain climbers, daredevils or other risk-takers. However, when asked of people who eat 8-inch-long raw Chinese red-headed centipedes – by choice, not by dares from beer-chugging friends – there’s really no good answer, even if you believe the medicinal folklore about their powers when consumed. Why? Because two people in China who ate them ended up with a mysterious disease that sent rat lungworms to their brains.

Rat lungworms in their brains! It sounds like a science fiction torture but it’s actually a life-threatening (and embarrassing) condition known as an Angiostrongylus cantonensis infection. According to a new report in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, a 78-year-old woman was admitted to a hospital in Guangzhou China, on November 22, 2012, complaining of headaches, drowsiness, cognitive impairment and a stiff neck that had lasted for several weeks.

After ruling out the easy diagnoses, doctors sampled her cerebrospinal fluid which showed a high level of eosinophils–a type of white blood cell–and antibodies associated with A. cantonensis. Under questioning, the woman admitted to recently eating raw centipedes. The diagnosis was confirmed a few weeks later when her son showed up at the hospital with the same symptoms, eosinophils and antibodies.

Why? According to a news release, dried or crushed centipedes are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat whooping cough, tetanus, cardiovascular diseases and cancer and as a potent pain killer. This may be due to the venom of the Chinese red-headed centipede which can kill a mouse and cause burning in humans.

Why did the mother and son eat live centipedes instead of dead dried ones? Apparently, the local farmer’s market was having a special on live centipedes. That’s where researchers purchased 20 live wild Chinese red-headed centipedes and found seven of them loaded with the Angiostrongylus cantonensis parasite. More commonly called the rat lungworm because they prefer the pulmonary arteries of rats.

Are you safe if you purchase live farmed centipedes for dinner or medicine? Not really, if there is such a thing. Rat lungworms have never been found before in centipedes. They’re commonly found in raw snails, slugs, shrimp, crabs and frogs. You can get the infection by eating the raw animals on purpose or when hidden on unwashed lettuce or on unwashed hands that touched the animals. Once in your system, the lungworms enter the brain and nervous system, causing a form of meningitis that can cause the headaches and other symptoms and ultimately be fatal.

What happened to the mother and son with the rat lungworms? Luckily, their brains were saved by correct diagnoses, a 21-day treatment with the anti-parasitic drug albendazole and a two-week course of the steroid dexamethasone to treat inflammation caused by the dead parasites.

Are you safe if you live someplace other than China and never eat live centipedes?

“The parasite also has been detected in Africa, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and, more recently, in Louisiana and South Florida. In Louisiana, it has been found in the invasive apple snail, a freshwater snail native to South America that is sometimes consumed as food. In South Florida, the parasite has been found in the invasive giant African land snail.”

Those vegan chips are starting to taste better already.

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