THAILAND is the land of many things.
Bustling markets, vibrant nightlife, pristine beaches, lip-smacking street food, intricate shrines, and exquisite cuisine. It truly is the land of smiles as you’d be hardpressed to find a tourist who leaves the country unhappy.
Thailand’s tourism is on the rise, but who’s visiting the most?
But liver cancer is the last thing that any tourist would want to be packing home with them.
Thousands of Thais have reportedly lost their lives to cancer due to eating koi pla, a popular salad dish-like delicacy in northeastern Thailand. Made from finely chopped raw fish, mixed with herbs, a dash of lime juice, and sometimes a sprinkling of live red ants, the fish harbors a dark secret: it can cause liver cancer.
How do they know this?
For starters, people in the northeast region of the country have bizarrely high levels of liver cancer and accounts for more than half of all male cancer cases in the region. A person can develop liver cancer when they contract a liver fluke parasite infection, and the freshwater fish used to make koi pla carry the fluke worms.
When eaten, the flukes work their way into the liver, where they release a particular protein that increases cell growth, providing the parasites with a food source. This protein is the key to the parasite’s cancer-causing ability. Once a person has contracted the infection, there’s not much doctors can do to prevent it from later becoming a chronic inflammation, which eventually becomes cancer.
The flukes also grow and lay eggs, which get excreted – often back into the water in which the fish are living – and then eaten by a snail, which is in turn eaten by fish, and thus the cycle starts again.
BBC quoted DR Banchob Sripa at the Tropical Disease Research Laboratory in Khon Kaen University as saying, “We have been studying this link in our labs for over 30 years.”
“We found that the liver fluke can make a chemical that stimulates a host immune response – inflammation – and after many years, this becomes chronic inflammation, which then becomes cancer.”
Dr. Banchob said that up to 80 percent of people in communities in Isaan were infected by the fluke. As such, doctors in the area are trying to educate people about the risk that eating koi pla poses. And the good thing is, it’s working.
“I think 60 percent do understand the causes of the liver cancer,” Dr Banchob revealed.
“They are aware of the liver fluke. But 10 percent are still eating raw fish. I believe that 10 percent probably cannot change. So we should change the environment, make the fish cleaner, to get fewer infections.”
Koi pla aside, the parasites can also be found in other raw, freshwater fish, especially in the Mekong region. But the best way to go about it in order to avoid contracting a cancerous infection is to eat cooked fish.
Other potentially deadly foods
It’s always better to be safe than sorry, so here are a couple of other seemingly harmless foods that could kill you.
- Bullfrog: A delicacy especially in Asia, the giant bullfrog’s legs are used for a number of popular dishes including frog legs porridge. However, it needs to be cooked right as the frog’s skin and inner organs contain harmful toxins and there have been fatal consequences.
- Octopus: Better known as sannakji in South Korea, this dish is eaten extremely fresh and still squirming on a plate. While it seems like fun and games, and quite a sight to experience, it’s not so much when people die as a result of choking on the tentacles.
- Blood clams: Also known as cockles in some parts of the world, blood clams are popular in China. Because they live in low-oxygen environments, they ingest viruses and bacteria, including Hepatitis A and E, typhoid, and dysentery.
- Fugu: Chefs in Japan must undergo special training to handle the fugu, otherwise known as the pufferfish, including learning how to prepare it. The fish’s liver, ovaries, and skin contain large amounts of tetrodotoxin. And there is no known antidote.
With that in mind, maybe you should order something else?
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