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Friday, 30 November, 2001, 10:44 GMT
Pig disease hits Colombia
pig feeding
A pig is often a family's only source of income
By the BBC's Richard Collings

A potentially lethal tapeworm infestation of pigs is on the rise in Colombia.

Anyone eating contaminated pork can become the carrier of a parasite whose larvae attack the central nervous system and the brain.

Demand for pork has fallen dramatically, leaving thousands of farmers virtually penniless but shops are still selling contaminated meat.

The government has few resources to tackle the disease and environmental and health campaigners have now launched initiatives to improve basic hygiene, one reason for the spread of the disease.

Hidden problem

Thousands of people in Colombia are now thought to be carrying the cysticercosis tapeworm parasite.

The highest number of life-threatening cases is in the Narino province, where hospitals are crowded with sufferers.

There are now 30,000 registered epileptics in south west Colombia, but it is estimated that several thousand more incidences of infection caused by eating contaminated pork go unreported every year.

Recent studies show that 40% of patients diagnosed with epilepsy in the south west have eaten contaminated pork, which has often been undercooked.

In many cases, the disease leads to a slow and agonising death.
parasite in pork
Thousands of people are now thought to be carrying the parasite

Worldwide, the disease is estimated to effect 50 million people. Endemic areas include Colombia, Mexico, sub-Saharan Africa, India and East Asia.

Family asset

In Colombia, a family's prize possession is very often its pig.

Pigs live with families in their back yards and often share the same sanitary arrangements.

A hole in the ground doubles up as the toilet for animals and humans alike.

It is estimated the disease affects 50m people worldwide
Endemic areas include Colombia, Mexico, India and East Asia
Dr Fernando Sanzon of Colombia's Narino University, who is spearheading the campaign to eradicate the cysticercosis disease, believes it is a question of educating farmers about basic hygiene.

He is concerned that the Colombian government, fighting a 40-year war against left-wing guerrillas, does not have enough money to spend on measures to eradicate the disease.

This year it has invested $10,000 in public awareness campaigns - a fraction of what is needed compared to the magnitude of the problem.

To date, only modest sums have been spent on research.

Environmental campaign

It is environmental and not health campaigners who have devised a novel scheme to improve basic hygiene.

One group gives people help with home improvements.

But in return farmers have to plant hundreds of trees before they are given new hand washing and toilet facilities.

Ana Cecilia Rosas, spokeswoman for the environmental group, says farmers have been willing to do this in the absence of any government initiatives.

But she voices concern at the lack of similar campaigns in the rest of the country where no work has yet been done to combat the tapeworm parasite in pigs.

The BBC's Richard Collings
"A lethal pig disease in Colombia is destroying farmers' livelihoods."
See also:

02 Nov 01 | England
Foot-and-mouth fears fade
19 Jun 01 | Europe
Spain hit by swine fever
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