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A 'potentially fatal' tapeworm has been discovered in Alberta: University of Alberta

Experts believe it was introduced by coyotes.

Echinococcus multilocularis has been found in humans in Alberta.

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Echinococcus multilocularis has been found in humans in Alberta.

An infectious disease expert from the University of Alberta confirmed Wednesday that a rare, and potentially fatal, new tapeworm has been found in four people in Alberta.

Echinococcus multilocularis is known in Europe but, until recently, had only been seen once in Canada—in Manitoba, in 1928.

But researchers from the University of Calgary’s veterinary school recently found tapeworms in hundreds of coyotes—and now, the infection has jumped to humans, according to Dr. Stan Houston, a professor of medicine and public health.

“This is obviously four cases in a population of four million, so it’s not a very common problem, and, of course I hope that it stays that way,” Houston told Metro. “But it’s an early stage of evolution, so it’s very important to monitor things closely over the next little while.”

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“We also want to flag this to our medical colleagues because this is something you might not diagnose readily.”

Houston explained the parasite changes form depending on the host. It exists as a fairly harmless tapeworm in coyotes, dogs and foxes but becomes a dangerous infection in humans.

If left untreated in humans, growths will form on the liver and eventually spread, cancer-like, to other parts of the body, he said. It can be fatal in 10 to 15 years.

Of the four known infections in the province over four years, two cases were treatable with surgery. The other two people will be on medication for life, Houston said.

His team is working with pathologists to determine if there may have been other missed cases.

In the early stages the infection has no symptoms, so Houston said prevention is key.

Houston said those most at risk are those who have a dog or hunt, or are taking medication that suppresses the immune system.

If you know your dog could be eating rodents, who can also carry worms, a veterinarian should be notified to provide a specific dewormer. Any plants close to the ground should be washed thoroughly before eating, he added.

“It’s way too early to tell about how concerned we should be,” Houston said “I might never see another case but we won’t know for awhile.”

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