Everyone is aware that there are some foods out there that are healthier than others, but one commonly consumed meal in Thailand is killing up to 20,000 people a year.
An inexpensive concoction of ground raw fish with spices and lime, which has become popular in poorer areas of Thailand, has been linked to resulting in fatal liver cancer for those who ingest it.
A doctor in Thailand, who lost both of his parents to the local dish, has started a campaign to raise awareness and stop people from eating this potentially deadly dish.
Millions of Thais, particularly in one of the nation’s poorest provinces called Isaan, consume koi pla on a regular basis and have been doing so for generations. The meal is cheap to make and easy to prepare, which makes it a popular choice in the northeast region.
However, koi pla has the highest reported instances of Cholangiocarcinoma (CCA), or bile duct cancer. Narong Khuntikeo, who lost both his parents to the disease, realized that the dish was to blame when he entered medical school.
Koi can be a source of parasitic diseases, the major cause being a parasitic flatworm which is endemic to the Mekong region. It is found in a significant number of freshwater fish. When ingested, the worms can go unnoticed in the bile ducts for years until they prompt an aggressive form of cancer.
“It’s a very big health burden around here,” Narong Khuntieko told The Guardian. “But nobody knows about this because they die quietly, like leaves falling from a tree.”
Khuntieko decided to become a liver surgeon after his parents’ death. After linking their cancer to the popular Thai meal, doctors, scientists, and anthropologists have congregated to try and fight the disease which has the lowest survival rate of all cancers.
Narong and his team have been testing villagers in the Isaan region for the past four years and found that up to 80% of some communities had ingested the parasite.
While the risk of something as deadly as bile duct cancer would be enough to ward anyone from eating a certain meal, Khuntieko has found that it hasn’t been easy to convince the older generations.
Narong is working desperately to save more locals from suffering the same fate as his parents. He has prompted local health officials to make more effort to teach children about the risks of raw foods. Unfortunately, he still has a long way to go to dissuade more communities from eating the treasured dish. He’s determined to get this fatal meal off the menu.