Changes in legislation that facilitate the movement of animals within the European Union may increase the risk that some microbial and parasitic organisms, currently exotic to Ireland, will be introduced by travelled pet animals. It is possible that the fox tapeworm, Echinococcus multilocularis, might be introduced in that manner from any of the several member states in which it is endemic. Red foxes are the principal definitive hosts of E. multilocularis but dogs and cats can also be infected. Infection in the definitive host is of little clinical significance, but aberrant infection of humans results in alveolar echinococcosis, a debilitating disease that has a high mortality rate. Humans acquire the organism by ingestion of Echinococcus multilocularis eggs excreted by definitive hosts; the larval metacestodes develop primarily in the liver, in the initial asymptomatic phase as small, well-encapsulated cysts. Over time, perhaps five to 15 years, progressive local infiltration and secondary cyst development at distant sites occur with resultant clinical signs. Patients with infiltrative liver disease present with cholestatic jaundice, epigastric pain, fatigue, weight loss and hepatomegaly. If left untreated, the disease can be fatal.
This paper recounts the life cycle of the parasite, and discusses the control measures on which its exclusion from Ireland depend. Strict adherence to the routine worming of travelled dogs with praziquantel, at appropriate doses, 24 to 48 hours prior to entry into the country will minimise the likelihood of introduction of this zoonosis.