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What Is Alveolar Echinococcosis?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on June 25, 2021

Alveolar echinococcosis (AE) is a disease caused by an infection from tiny tapeworms called Echinococcus multilocularis. The tapeworms are usually found in foxes, coyotes, dogs, and sometimes rodents. Human infections are rare, but serious side effects can occur when it happens.

How Do Humans Get AE?

Scientists have found AE in animals all over the world. But they’ve seen human cases only in Alaska, Minnesota, and the Canadian province of Manitoba.

People at high risk include:

  • Hunters
  • Trappers
  • Veterinarians
  • Anyone who comes in contact with wild foxes, coyotes, or dogs and cats that may have eaten wild rodents

You could get infected by mistakenly swallowing the tapeworm’s eggs. This might happen after eating food (such as herbs, greens, or berries from fields) contaminated with coyote or fox poop. You’re also at risk if you’ve pet or handled infected animals.

Symptoms

Because the larvae grow slowly inside your body, they might not cause symptoms for anywhere from 5 to 15 years. The infection usually affects your liver, but it can spread to other organs. such as your spleen, lungs, or brain. You may have these symptoms as the tumor-like tapeworm grows:

  • Pain or discomfort in the top of your belly
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss

These symptoms are similar to those of liver cancer or cirrhosis of the liver.

Diagnosis

See your doctor right away if you think you have AE. They can do a CT scan or MRI to look for tumor- or cyst-like shapes. If they find any, they’ll use blood tests to look for Echinococcus multilocularis tapeworm antibodies.

Treatment

Treatment is often expensive and complicated. You might need a lengthy surgery or drug therapy.

Doctors can best treat your case if they find it early. They’ll take out the tumor or cyst during surgery. You’ll likely be given anti-infective drugs. You might need more surgery to heal the lesion.

If your infection is in a more advanced stage, you might need more surgery and anti-infective treatment.

Prevention

Follow these tips to avoid infection:

  • Stay away from wild animals like foxes, coyotes, and dogs, along with their poop.
  • Keep your dog away from rodents.
  • Don’t allow your pet to feed on rodents or other wild animals.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water after touching dogs or cats, and before preparing food.
  • Tell children about the importance of washing their hands to avoid infections.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Photo Credit: Eye of Science / Science Source

CDC: “Parasites -- Echinococcosis,” “Alveolar Echinococcosis (AR) FAQs.”

World Health Organization: “Echinococcosis.”

RadioGraphics: “Alveolar Echinococcosis: Spectrum of Findings at Cross-sectional Imaging.”

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