Prior to 2013, the last human alveolar echinococcosis (AE) in Canada was in Manitoba nearly 90 years ago. However, experts at the University of Alberta (UAlberta) say four cases have been reported in the past four years prompting UAlberta infectious diseases expert, Stan Houston to say, “This is significant enough to warrant a watchful eye on the problem”.

The tapeworm, Echinococcus multilocularwas recently introduced into Alberta coyotes likely from a dog brought from Europe.

Image/National Park Service
Image/National Park Service

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who accidentally swallow the eggs of the Echinococcus multilocularis tapeworm are at risk for infection. People at high risk include trappers, hunters, veterinarians, or others who have contact with wild foxes, or coyotes, or their stool, or household dogs and cats that have the opportunity to eat wild rodents infected with AE.

Humans can be exposed to these eggs by “hand-to-mouth” transfer or contamination, for example: By directly ingesting food items contaminated with stool from foxes or coyotes. This might include grass, herbs, greens, or berries gathered from fields or by petting or handling household dogs or cats infected with the Echinococcus multilocularis tapeworm. These pets may shed the tapeworm eggs in their stool, and their fur may be contaminated. Some dogs “scent roll” in foreign material (such as wild animal feces) and may become contaminated this way.

In most cases, the early presence of Echinococcus multilocularis infestation is symptomless, said Houston.

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“Roughly one-third of patients who are diagnosed are jaundiced (turn yellow). Another third report unspecified pain and see a doctor for that reason. The other third will visit a doctor for another reason and through an ultrasound or CT scan, a liver mass is identified.”

Because the parasite is initially symptomless and may be left to slowly grow, by the time it is found, about two-thirds of patients will be inoperable.

“They can survive the parasite with lifelong anti-parasitic medicine. If it is entirely removed surgically, patients usually only need to be on the medicines for two years,” added Houston.

If left untreated, the parasite will kill its human host in 10 to 15 years.

If you live in an area where Echinococcus multilocularis is found in rodents and wild canines, take the following precautions to avoid infection:

  • Don’t touch a fox, coyote, or other wild canine, dead or alive, unless you are wearing gloves. Hunters and trappers should use plastic gloves to avoid exposure.
  • Don’t keep wild animals, especially wild canines, as pets or encourage them to come close to your home.
  • Don’t allow your dogs and cats to wander freely or to capture and eat rodents.
  • If you think that your pet may have eaten rodents, consult your veterinarian about possible preventive treatments.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water after handling dogs or cats, and before handling food.
  • Teach children the importance of washing hands to prevent infection.
  • Do not collect or eat wild fruits or vegetables picked directly from the ground. All wild-picked foods should be washed carefully or cooked before eating.