I just traveled halfway around the world to look at a toilet.
You may want to skip lunch—and probably avoid sushi for dinner—when visiting the world’s foremost museum of parasites in Tokyo.
At the quirky and endlessly fascinating Meguro Parasitological Museum, which I toured during my trip to Japan in August, you’ll find hundreds of stomach-turning displays featuring creepy parasite specimens.
Some of the strangest-looking ones have resided inside the bodies of fish, turtles, pigs, and other animals. But by far the most horrific specimens are the parasites that have chosen humans as their hosts.
What steals the show is the world’s longest tapeworm. In 1986, this garden-hose length parasite was discovered living in the small intestine of a Japanese man. He had dined on a piece of raw salmon that was infected with a tapeworm egg smaller than a grain of rice. Over the next three months it grew and grew until it reached 29 feet long! (If you’re a follower on my Instagram account, you may have gotten a glimpse of this impressive specimen.)
The man who recovered the tapeworm from this unfortunate patient was Dr. Satoru Kamegai, the founder of Meguro Parasitological Museum. A physician, Dr. Kamegai started practicing medicine after World War II. At the time the country’s water and sanitation systems were in ruins and many people throughout Japan suffered from parasitic diseases. Dr. Kamegai became fascinated by the strange world of parasites and started collecting them from his patients. In 1953, he opened a small museum to display his findings and raise awareness of these creatures. Dr. Kamegai passed away in 2002, but the museum has continued to operate as a private research and educational facility.
Today, the museum has a collection of 60,000 different parasites, about 300 of which are on display in the two-story collection. Entrance to the museum is free and it draws a steady stream of visitors. It even has a gift shop with parasite-themed t-shirts, pens, and jewelry. (I picked up a t-shirt with the famous tapeworm on it.)
While I had a busy trip to Japan, I took time to stop at this museum because of our foundation’s efforts to reduce the burden of so-called neglected tropical diseases, many of them caused by parasites. More than 1 billion people suffer from these overlooked diseases with often difficult to pronounce names, including dracunculiasis (Guinea worm disease), human African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), visceral leishmaniasis (black fever), onchocerciasis (river blindness), and schistosomiasis (snail fever).
These diseases can cause anemia and blindness, stunt children’s growth, lead to cognitive impairments, complicate pregnancies, and result in thousands of deaths each year. And it’s not uncommon for people living in extreme poverty to suffer from more than one of these diseases at the same time, affecting their ability to go to school or make a living.
Our foundation works with partners on the treatment and control of these diseases. One of the most successful efforts has been mass drug administration, which seeks to treat everyone against a disease—even if they are not actually infected or show any symptoms. I observed this incredible work in Tanzania, where I joined a group of health workers going from house to house to distribute medicine to wipe out lymphatic filariasis, one of the world’s most painful and debilitating diseases.
The good news is that there’s been a lot of progress in reducing parasitic diseases around the world. But there’s still more work to be done. That makes this museum a great place for people to learn about where these diseases still exist and the incredible work that’s going on to wipe them out.
If you happen to be in Tokyo, I encourage you to visit.