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A rare parasitic disease has been found in Vermont. Experts say it's not cause for concern

A coyote walks in snowy wooded area.
LeFion
/
iStock
A disease called alveolar echinococcosis is caused by a small tapeworm often found in coyotes and foxes. Human infections occur when someone accidentally ingests the tapeworm, which can result in a parasitic tumor — usually on the liver. It can be fatal if untreated.

A European strain of a rare parasitic disease has been found in two patients in Vermont.

In a research letter published earlier this month in the New England Journal of Medicine, a group of researchers — including two from the University of Vermont — described the cases with the hope of raising awareness among the medical community.

The disease, called alveolar echinococcosis, is caused by a small tapeworm often found in coyotes and foxes. Human infections occur when someone accidentally ingests the tapeworm, which can result in a parasitic tumor — usually on the liver. It can be fatal if untreated.

The last human infection in the U.S. was documented in Minnesota in 1977. But in 2018 and 2020, the disease was detected in two Vermonters.

“This has never been identified in this part of the country,” said Dr. Louis Polish, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Vermont and one of the authors of the letter. He said it’s not only the first time the disease has been detected in the Northeast, but also the first time cases caused by a more harmful European strain of the parasite have been found in the U.S.

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Symptoms of the disease can include “discomfort or pain, weight loss, and malaise,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parasitic tumors on the liver can spread to other organs, including the lungs and brain.

The two Vermont patients, described as an 82-year-old male and a 36-year-old female, are doing OK, Polish said. One is awaiting a liver transplant.

Testing in Virginia has since identified the European strain of the parasite in foxes, confirming its presence in this part of the country.

“We've now identified this rare infection in this part of the world, not only in humans, but in wildlife that would carry [the parasite],” Polish said.

But Polish stressed there is no cause for alarm. “We wanted to make sure that physicians were aware of this,” he said, but when it comes to everyone else, “this is really not something that ought to keep them up at night.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Anna is a reporter and co-hosts Vermont Public's daily news podcast, The Frequency, with Henry Epp.
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