Skip to main content
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track on the Olympic Games
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track onthe Olympics Games
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Recent studies of coyotes, foxes, and rodents in Alberta have found a high incidence of infected wild animals in areas across the province, including urban off leash dog parks in Calgary.

Laura Beahm/The Associated Press

Alberta has emerged as North America’s hot spot for a rare parasitic disease with potentially deadly consequences for people who contract it, despite an incubation period of up to 15 years.

Human alveolar echinococcosis (AE) is gaining traction in Western Canada thanks to the abundance of coyotes carrying the tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis. People are at risk of being infected with AE after consuming the tapeworm’s microscopic eggs, most likely by eating foods (such as unwashed produce from an outdoor garden) contaminated with stool from coyotes or foxes carrying the parasite. Dogs can also contract the parasite from another animal’s stool and pass it to humans.

The disease remains rare in humans and cannot be transmitted between people. But it is on the rise in Alberta and, like the coronavirus that scientists believe originated in bats, is a warning that humans need to be better attuned to our surroundings, researchers argue.

Story continues below advertisement

“This is not COVID – we haven’t had hundreds or thousands of deaths,” Stan Houston, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Alberta, said. “But there is a connection there: COVID has reminded us of the important intersection between human health, animal health and ecosystem health – and that we should be paying more attention to that.”

Scientists identified 17 cases of human AE in Alberta between 2013 and 2020, according to research Prof. Houston and his colleagues recently published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. While this figure is small, only two cases of human AE were confirmed in North America, save for an island in Alaska, prior to this period – one in Manitoba in 1928 and one in Minnesota in 1977, according to the researchers.

Globally, there are about 18,000 cases of AE each year. It can incubate for up to 15 years, and results in a tumor-like mass on the liver, with potential for spread. Symptoms include fatigue, weight loss and abdomen pain, but AE is often diagnosed incidentally, when it shows up on abdominal images ordered for other health problems.

Alberta’s 17 cases are associated, by time and geography, with the rise of the European-like Echinococcus multilocularis in local wildlife. Six of the 17 AE patients were on immunosuppressive therapies, which indicates the surge of cases may increase. One of the 17 patients in Alberta has died, the paper said.

“The high proportion of immunocompromised individuals among our patient group suggests that we may be at an early stage of emergence of the disease in North America because these patients are likely to have shorter incubation periods,” Prof. Houston’s paper said. “This conjecture is supported by the high proportion who were found incidentally, at an early stage before progression to symptomatic disease.”

Between 25 and 60 per cent of urban coyotes in Calgary and Edmonton carry the problematic tapeworm, Prof. Houston’s paper notes. It is relatively harmless for coyotes, dogs and foxes, but it kills rodents. Dogs can also carry the parasite’s eggs in their fur, after rolling around in infected feces in a park, for example.

Emily Jenkins, acting department head of veterinary microbiology at the University of Saskatchewan, published separate research on AE after studying a case in Saskatoon. She noted the disease is rare even where it is highly endemic, but people should still be aware it is circulating.

Story continues below advertisement

“It takes a certain amount of risk factors for a person to actually get exposed and develop the disease, but when they do, it is really scary,” she said. “It is a really difficult-to-manage disease.”

AE is treated with albendazole, an anti-worm pill the World Health Organization considers essential. The drug, however, is not available in Canada without permission through Health Canada’s Special Access Program. Surgery can also be used to manage AE.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies