Echinococcosis (say: eh-kinno-cock-ko-sis) is an infection caused by eating food or water that is contaminated with the eggs of the Echinococcus worm. This worm is a microscopic tapeworm that is often found in dogs and common livestock, especially sheep.
Although infection in humans is rare, it can be serious. After the tapeworm egg is eaten, it settles in the organs (such as the lungs, brain and liver) and can cause large cysts to form.
If left untreated, you could die from this infection. Echinococcosis is also called hydatid disease.
Echinococcosis may not produce any symptoms for 10 or 20 years because the cysts grow slowly. When the symptoms appear, they can include:
The disease is found all over the world where humans are in close contact with dogs and livestock. In the United States, echinococcosis is mostly found in the Southwest and Alaska.
Humans can get echinococcosis by eating food or drinking water contaminated with feces from infected dogs or livestock. Humans can also get this disease by playing with or handling infected dogs or livestock.
The cysts are often found on X-rays. They can also be detected with a computerized tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Sometimes a thin needle is used to puncture the cyst and take out fluid to test for the echinococcosis infection.
Treatment for this disease is based on where the cysts are located and what problems they are causing. Drugs that treat infections cause by worms are called anthelmintics. These include albendazole, mebendazole and praziquantel. Surgery to remove the cysts may be necessary for more severe cases. You may need medicine to keep the tapeworm from coming back.
You should be careful if you live in an area where livestock are raised and/or you have contact with dogs. Give your dogs routine worming treatments to remove and prevent tapeworms. Always wash your hands after handling your pets. Fence in your garden to keep out pets and wild animals. Be sure to wash fruits and vegetables before eating them.
Echinococcosis--An Emerging Parasite in the Immigrant Population by M Chrieki, M.D. (American Family Physician September 01, 2002, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20020901/817.html)
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff