Parasitic worms in dogs, cats may jump into people

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parasitic worms
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Parasitic worms that infect companion animals such as dogs and cats are more likely to make the leap into humans than other worm species, according to new research from the US.

The study by a team at the University of Georgia’s Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases also identified three species of worms that don’t currently infect people but have a more than 70 per cent chance of crossing into humans in the future.

“The close relationships that we have with pets is the predominant reason why people might become infected with new species of parasitic worms,” lead author Dr Ania Majewska said. 

“Everyday behaviours like playing with and feeding our pets increase opportunities for those parasites to infect people.”

Parasitic worms, or helminths, are estimated to infect 1.5 billion people globally, according to the World Health Organization. Many of these parasites infect humans, causing a number of serious illnesses, including schistosomiasis and filariasis.

Published in Philosophical Transactions B, the study focused on 737 parasitic worm species that predominantly infect wild and domesticated mammals. Of these, 137 are known to be able to infect people.

The researchers categorised the worm species’ traits and built a machine learning model to determine which characteristics were most commonly associated with transmission into humans.

They found that worms that can infect companion animals or fish are more likely to cause human infection than worms that infect other animal species. Geographically widespread parasites were also more likely to make the jump from animals into people.

The analyses showed that three worm species not currently known to infect people have traits that make them very likely to be able to do so: Paramphistomum cervi, a flatworm mostly found in livestock and some wild animals; Schistocephalus solidus, a fish-based tapeworm that also infects birds and rodents; and Strongyloides papillosus, a pinworm found largely in livestock.

The study marks the first time these species have been identified as likely to infect humans. 

“Because of climate change and increased demands for animal protein, we fully expect that human parasitic worm infections will continue to increase,” senior author John Drake said.

“More research is needed to understand how parasitic worm spillover to humans can be managed.”

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