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Books | Science

May 16, 2010

A Personal Journey Through Parasites

Parasitologist Eugene Kaplan tells Gelf about his life among the bugs and worms that inspired What's Eating You?

David Goldenberg

Eugene Kaplan's What's Eating You?: People and Parasites could easily have been titled What's Eating Me? After all, many of the chapters in this strangely funny book on deadly parasites begin with an anecdote from the author about an infection that he suffered. That's partly because Kaplan is the rare parasitologist whose research doesn't give him pause before he, say, buys undercooked food from a street vendor in Thailand.

Eugene Kaplan
"Relatively few physicians here have even the most rudimentary training in parasitology and don't know what to do."

Eugene Kaplan

Somehow, Kaplan manages to create a successful combination of gross, personal stories about "giving birth" to worms alongside academic writing on topics like the global malaria epidemic as well as old-school templates of everything from Chagas beetles to swollen canine scrota. The resulting book feels like something you would study in an advanced biology class at clown college, but in a good way.

In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, the former Hofstra professor tells Gelf why he keeps getting himself infected and why he sees a parasite plague coming our way.

Gelf Magazine: You often seem to get parasites from eating food you know is questionable. What compels you to take such risks? Why can't you stop yourself?

Eugene Kaplan: I believe that eating the food of the country you are visiting is a wonderful way of penetrating the culture. On a recent visit to Peru, I ate guinea pig and alpaca steak. That can be a problem for people who are not aware of the potential parasitic consequences. Both the guinea pig and alpaca were well cooked, so there was little danger. In fact, the parasites I got were from noodles and parsley salad—very innocuous.

Gelf Magazine: So which was worse to get, amebic dysentery or bacterial dysentery?

Eugene Kaplan: Amebic dysentery, because healthy people are able to shake off the bacterial infection relatively easily, while the amebic form can spread from the gut through the bloodstream and infect any organ, especially the liver, causing potentially fatal cirrhosis.

Gelf Magazine: You mention that, on a bet, you lost the Ascaris worm that was once inside of you. What were you betting on and who would take a worm as payment?

Eugene Kaplan: In the 1980s I bet my worm that the world would run out of oil by 1990. How was I to know that they would develop new techniques? The winner was my buddy, a professor in the biology department, who is a fellow appreciator of worms. He lost it when we moved from one building to another.

Gelf Magazine: In the book, you cover all sorts of different parasites that we humans can get. Which is the one you'd least like to get and why?

Eugene Kaplan: The world's smallest tapeworm Echinococcus granulosus (the subject of the chapter called "Missus Murphy's Baby") is the most horrible. It's sort of like the film Alien.

Gelf Magazine: Why is the Missus Murphy tapeworm worse than, say, the Guinea Worm?

Eugene Kaplan: Because the "tumor" is so awfully visible as a monstrous bulge. It can push organs out of the way and damage them. If it bursts, it releases toxins and causes anaphylactic shock, killing the patient.
The guinea worm is equally horrible. It, too, is visible, but only as string hanging from the leg or arm. If it is torn, it dies and rots, infecting the region that still contains the (dead) worm. Both of these are relatively rare, especially the tapeworm. President Carter has decided to single-handedly remove the guinea worm from the world. His charity has reduced the number of infections per year to the thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands. The worm is susceptible to medication—which is why only remote villages are vulnerable. Pills cost pennies or are free due to donations by pharmaceutical companies. I believe the parasite will functionally be eradicated within a few years.

Gelf Magazine: More than three quarters of the world's population has had parasites. What does that say about humanity?

Eugene Kaplan: Most of humanity is impoverished. The same ratio can be applied to poverty.

Gelf Magazine: You include some titillating chapter names in your book, like "The Well-Hung Dog" and "Wild Virgins." What should that tell us about you and your book?

Eugene Kaplan: That I am a pervert?

Gelf Magazine: Recently, a few researchers have suggested that the rise in autoimmune diseases like asthma and Type-1 diabetes in the developed world has happened because our immune systems are out of whack now that we no longer have the worms they coevolved with. Do you buy that theory?

Eugene Kaplan: There is some evidence of that concerning hookworm, but I believe that primarily the cause is new environmental contaminants that mirror functional molecules or are antigenic.

Gelf Magazine: You end a few chapters noting that the particular terrible parasite you discussed can't survive outside of the tropics. Then you state, ominously, "But consider global warming." What do you think is going to happen?

Eugene Kaplan: The characteristics of ecosystems are changing—plants and animals are being found higher on mountains. That is sure evidence of the effects of global warming. Similarly, tropical and subtropical plants are invading and becoming weeds. Some carriers of parasites are tropical and subtropical. As it gets warmer, these carriers (some species of mosquitoes and flies) are surviving in the US. Parasites and their hosts are moving north from Mexico and Central America.

Gelf Magazine: So is there a coming plague of parasites in the US? Will we be able to fend it off easily with modern medicine?

Eugene Kaplan: I believe there is a plague of parasites coming with ballooning ecotourism, and ballooning impoverishment in the developing world. We will be caught unawares because, although there is medication available, relatively few physicians have even the most rudimentary training in parasitology and don't know what to do.

Gelf Magazine: In your chapter on pubic lice—aka crabs—you provide a hilarious list of names your students have come up with for lice that are fit for public consumption. What are your favorite ones that are not fit for public consumption?

Eugene Kaplan: You are too young to be grossed out by the depths of depravity of some of my students' names. I like "rug rats" very much.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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