Trichinella Outbreak in Belgium: How Infections Cross International Borders

Trichinellosis is caused by a parasite belonging to the phylum Nematoda. The commonly implicated species is T. spiralis, although there are many other species that are involved in the disease process. There has recently been an outbreak of food poisoning due to consumption of infected pork in the cities of Antwerp and Limburg, in Belgium. According to the Center for Burden and Risk Assessment (CBRA), there are, as of now, twelve hospital-admitted cases of Trichinella food-poisoning. A screen grab (since there seems to be no way to access an individual link for the news item):

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 10.27.03 PM

You might be wondering what is the big deal over a measly twelve cases, but this gains a major significance in light of the fact that there have hardly been any cases of Trichinellosis in Belgium in the past century! The life cycle of the worm, depicted below, shows that it can spend its entire life in the same organism (pig or rodents or bears). The problem arises when infected pig meat is improperly cooked and eaten by man, when he ends up being cross-infected. It can cause a severe infection, which can even lead to death in many cases. Here is a fun graphic to just run you through the life cycle of this worm:

Life Cycle of Trichinella (By Dakuhippo CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Life Cycle of Trichinella (By Dakuhippo CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The worm can survive in meat for prolonged periods. It is speculated that the food served in areas of Antwerp and Limburg were made with the affected pork, which was supplied from Spain. This is where it gets interesting. There are very limited opportunities to actually screen imported food, salami, etc for quality control because a single bad batch is good enough to affect scores of people. And in a nation that has not seen a case in a hundred years, even a dozen or two cases is, by definition, of epidemic proportions.

This goes to show that in today’s globalized world, regional eradication of an infectious disease agent virtually carries no meaning. Despite having stringent laws, which are implemented and strictly obeyed, this outbreak has happened. It is a good thing that the country has an active public health system that has detected the outbreak before any further damage could happen.

The mass media has been mobilized to spread the message that customers who had consumed meat from the suspected vendors should get themselves checked for the possibility that they are infected. This means that the numbers of cases are likely to increase in the days to come but hopefully, this, along with a recalling of the probably bad batch(es) and further instructions on proper cooking and inspection of meat, would stifle further outbreaks.

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