Anisakis is a genus of parasitic nematodes which have lifecycles involving fish and marine mammals. They are infective to humans and cause anisakiasis. People who produce immunoglobulin E in response to this parasite may subsequently have an allergic reaction, including anaphylaxis, after eating fish infected with Anisakis species.
Anisakids pose a risk to human health through intestinal infection with worms from the eating of underprocessed fish, and through allergic reactions to chemicals left by the worms in fish flesh.
Anisakiasis is a human parasitic infection of the gastrointestinal tract caused by the consumption of raw or undercooked seafood containing larvae of the nematode Anisakis simplex. The first case of human infection by a member of the family Anisakidae was reported in the Netherlands by Van Thiel, who described the presence of a marine nematode in a patient suffering from acute abdominal pain. It is frequently reported in areas of the world where fish is consumed raw, lightly pickled, or salted. The areas of highest prevalence are Scandinavia (from cod livers), Japan (after eating sashimi), the Netherlands (by eating infected fermented herrings (maatjes)), Spain (from eating anchovies and other fish marinated in escabeche), and along the Pacific coast of South America (from eating ceviche). The frequency in the United States is unknown, because the disease is not reportable and can go undetected or be mistaken for other illnesses. Anisakiasis was first recognized in the 1960s. During the 1970s, about 10 cases per year were reported in the literature. The frequency is probably much higher, due to home preparation of raw or undercooked fish dishes. In Japan, more than 1,000 cases are reported annually. Development of better diagnostic tools and greater awareness has led to more frequent reporting of anisakiasis.
Within a few hours of ingestion, the parasitic worm tries to burrow though the intestinal wall, but since it cannot penetrate it, it gets stuck and dies. The presence of the parasite triggers an immune response; immune cells surround the worms, forming a ball-like structure that can block the digestive system, causing severe abdominal pain, malnutrition, and vomiting. Occasionally, the larvae are regurgitated. If the larvae pass into the bowel or large intestine, a severe eosinophilic granulomatous response may also occur one to two weeks following infection, causing symptoms mimicking Crohn’s disease.
Diagnosis can be made by gastroscopic examination, during which the 2-cm larvae are visually observed and removed, or by histopathologic examination of tissue removed at biopsy or during surgery.
Raising consumer and producer awareness about the existence of anisakid worms in fish is a critical and effective prevention strategy. Anisakiasis can be easily prevented by adequate cooking at temperatures greater than 60 °C or freezing. The FDA recommends all shellfish and fish intended for raw consumption be blast frozen to −35 °C or below for 15 hours or be regularly frozen to −20 °C or below for seven days. Salting and marinating will not necessarily kill the parasites. Humans are thought to be more at risk of anisakiasis from eating wild fish rather than farmed fish. Many countries require all types of fish with potential risk intended for raw consumption to be previously frozen to kill parasites. The mandate to freeze herring in the Netherlands has virtually eliminated human anisakiasis.
Even when the fish is thoroughly cooked, Anisakis larvae pose a health risk to humans. Anisakids (and related species such as the sealworm, Pseudoterranova species, and the codworm Hysterothylacium aduncum) release a number of biochemicals into the surrounding tissues when they infect a fish. They are also often consumed whole, accidentally, inside a fillet of fish.
Acute allergic manifestations, such as urticaria and anaphylaxis, may occur with or without accompanying gastrointestinal symptoms. The frequency of allergic symptoms in connection with fish ingestion has led to the concept of gastroallergic anisakiasis, an acute IgE-mediated generalized reaction. Occupational allergy, including asthma, conjunctivitis, and contact dermatitis, has been observed in fish processing workers. Sensitivization and allergy are determined by skin-prick test and detection of specific antibodies against Anisakis. Hypersensitivity is indicated by a rapid rise in levels of IgE in the first several days following consumption of infected fish. A 2018 review of cases in France has shown that allergic cases were more commonly found, although the number of human Anisakis infections was decreasing.
For the worm, humans are a dead-end host. Anisakis and Pseudoterranova larvae cannot survive in humans, and eventually die. In some cases, the infection resolves with only symptomatic treatment. In other cases, however, infection can lead to small bowel obstruction, which may require surgery, although treatment with albendazole alone (avoiding surgery) has been reported to be successful. Intestinal perforation (an emergency) is also possible.
Larval anisakids are common parasites of marine and anadromous fish (e.g. salmon, sardine), and can also be found in squid and cuttlefish. In contrast, they are absent from fish in waters of low salinity, due to the physiological requirements of krill, which are involved in the completion of the worm’s lifecycle. Anisakids are also uncommon in areas where cetaceans are rare, such as the southern North Sea.