Echinococcus is responsible for echinococcosis, hydatidosis or hydatid cyst disease – names for an infection that can begin when the body is infiltrated by the Echinococcus granulosus worm or the Echinococcus multicularis worm. The worm is considered a form of a tapeworm. Although it can be found anywhere, including the United States, it is most commonly found in South America, the Middle East, Africa, the Mediterranean areas, and central Asia. People of all ages and races are equally affected; however, because of cultural practices women have a higher likelihood of infection in some countries. People rarely die from the disease, although complications can occur.
Humans become infected with the echinococcus tapeworm when they consume food that has been contaminated with eggs from the worm. The infection begins in the liver and typically cysts are formed. In addition, cysts can usually be found in the lungs, brains, muscles, bones, spleen, kidney, and a variety of other tissues – causing greater concern. The cysts start very small and there may not be any symptoms of the illness for nearly 20 years – or until symptoms for or the cysts grow to a size where a doctor can physically find them.
People most at risk of contacting echinococcosis are those that are exposed to dog feces, cattle, pigs, deer, or sheep. As previously mentioned, the symptoms may not present themselves for years; however, they include stomach pains, itching, chest pain, spitting up blood, coughing, and fever. In most cases, the cysts are found when an x-ray or ultrasound is completed for an unrelated reason. Besides x-ray or ultrasound, other ways to determine whether a person is infected by the echinococcus worm is through a physical exam, a blood test, or a test for liver function.
Oral medication is the easiest way to treat echinococcosis. However, it must be taken for approximately three months. In addition, if the cysts are located in certain areas of the body, a doctor may want to immediately remove them through surgical methods. The surgery can often be complicated and a specialist is often recommended. As long as the cysts do not rupture, the prognosis is good for people who respond well to the medicine; but, if the cysts do rupture, the disease can easily spread throughout the body.
The best prevention from becoming infected by the echinococcus worm is education and de-worming dogs. In areas where the worm is most common, literature should be given to children and adults explaining the method of infection. In addition, the cycle of the worm should also be made known – it too will lower the likelihood of infection.