Parasite risks: real or imagined?Following the recent discovery of parasite eggs in certain brands of domestic and imported kimchi products, the sales of anthelmintics ― medicines that destroy parasitic worms ― have dramatically increased. In supermarkets, on the other hand, kimchi sales have plummeted. The scandal reminds many Koreans of older days, when the general public was more at risk from parasites: In the 1960’s and 70’s, the nation had to declare war on parasites, which had become endemic. Poor farmers in the war’s wake used human waste as fertilizer, and bare footed children running around in fields and swallowing dust became easy targets for parasites.
So the government of the day instituted health policies in reaction ― doctors conducted checkups in primary schools, where anti-parasitic medicines were administered for free, as they were at public health centers.
The combination of a nationwide effort to fight parasites and modernized farming methods lowered the rate of infection, and since the early 1990’s, the country has been largely parasite free. The country’s brush with parasites became only a horror story for grandmothers to tell little children.
So after the disclosure that some kimchi is not completely free from parasite contamination, is the country facing a second threat of widespread parasitic infection? The JoongAng Daily’s attempts to interview parasite experts in large hospitals was largely unsuccessful because many refused to comment, saying they didn’t want to get into trouble. But they did agree that the situation has been exaggerated by the media.
Chai Jong-il, parasitology professor at Seoul National University, said, “I would like to cautiously suggest that a few parasite eggs are not worth making a big deal about.”
According to Mr. Chai, the rate of parasitic infection is still regarded as being at a safe level.
“Those who are too worried should simply take anthelmintics once or twice a year, because doing so is a good precaution,” he said.
However, Mr. Chai said that medication and the body’s immune system do not always get rid of all forms of parasitic infestation.
“Unlike viruses or other kinds of germs, parasites cannot be fought completely by medicine. However, a few of them are not that dangerous,” he said. “A long time ago, people were infected with hundreds of parasites, but it was mostly through the incidental consumption of soil in the days of poverty. The chance of getting such numbers of parasites through kimchi is extremely low.”
“Usually, healthy people’s immune system can deal with a few parasites without the help of medicine. But little children and old people who have weaker immune systems should take anthelminthics once in a while,” Mr. Chai added.
Then how do people usually get parasites these days? In Korea, people get infected mostly from raw fish and meat. Eating raw freshwater fish, coastal fish or raw pork and beef can risk consumption of trematodes, a common kind of parasite.
Mr. Chai says that these kinds of parasites are totally different from the ones found in kimchi. Parasite eggs in kimchi are mostly from roundworms, hookworms and whipworms, which are found on vegetables.
Then, should we stop eating raw fish, meat and vegetables?
These kinds of parasites can be controlled by a healthy person’s immune system as well as by anthilmentic tablets sold in drug stores.
According to Yong Tai-soon, a parasitology professor at Yonsei University, it is very rare these days for people to go to hospital because of parasitic infection.
“A very few cases of parasite infection in this country develop into malaria, and maybe jaundice, but again, this is not very common,” Mr. Yong said. “It wouldn’t hurt to take medication once or twice a year, but technically speaking, a parasite check up should be done beforehand.”
According to Mr. Chai, symptoms of parasitic infection are very difficult to distinguish from those of other common diseases; usually stomachache, diarrhea, fatigue, jaundice, anemia or loss of weight or appetite.
Prevention of parasites
1. Be careful when eating raw fish and meat, which can be route for parasite infection.
2. Wash your hands frequently to avoid pinworms, especially if you have children.
3. Do not let your children share toys with other children in at-risk or dirty areas to avoid pinworm infection.
4. Regularly take your pet to the veterinarian for parasite checkups.
5. Take anthelmintics regularly once or twice a year.
by Choi Sun-young