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Discovery Magazine 5/1/2003

Tacky Tapeworms

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.

If you are eating spaghetti right now, you might not want to read this article, because it talks about worms. But these are not your “normal” kinds of worms; they are tapeworms. Tapeworms are parasites that live in the intestines (guts) of animals and people. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and occur all over the world. Some have a head, with a series of identical body segments. The head often has tiny hooks, which tapeworms use to attach to intestines. And, sometimes there are tiny “suckers,” which absorb nutrients (food). Tapeworms do not have mouths or intestines of their own, however. The animal or person in which the tapeworm lives is the “host.”

Tapeworms generally can’t infest animals or humans by themselves. They have to have help. As a tapeworm matures in the intestine, it produces eggs that are stored in its body segments. These segments break off, exit the body, and are eaten by, say, a flea. Then, the flea gets eaten by a dog, cat, pig, or cow as the animal grooms itself. Once inside an animal, the eggs grow into mature tapeworms and attach to the intestine, where the process starts all over again.

Tapeworms infest dogs, cats, cattle, pigs, and other animals. If a cow or pig is infected with tapeworms, and people eat that beef or pork without cooking it well, humans can become hosts for the tapeworms. Sometimes, people accidentally eat fleas from their pets when the fleas get into foods. So, humans can get tapeworms from cats and dogs, too.

Normally, tapeworms don’t cause much damage to the health of animals or people. Weight loss can occur, because tapeworms “steal” nutrients from the food that enters the intestines. But in some instances, parasites can damage the lining of the intestines. One tapeworm, known as Echinococcus(e-kine-oh-cock-us), is especially dangerous to humans.

We may not always understand why God created some of the things in the world around us, but since He always does what is right (Genesis 18:25), we know that His plan is best. Some-times things like parasites can remind us of what God said through the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8).

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