Picking berries and mushrooms without danger of parasites

The fox tapeworm is feared above all by hikers and mushroom pickers. No wonder, because the myth that there is a risk of infection, especially when eating wild berries or mushrooms, persists. Even though the temptation is great, many people keep their hands off the delicacies of the forest. The reason: you never know if there isn’t a fox tapeworm lurking in the strawberry fur. Is there anything to it? Here you can read about how to really protect yourself from an infection and much more:

What is a fox tapeworm?

How high is the risk of infection?

Which animals transmit the fox tapeworm?

How do I protect myself from the pathogen?

When is a fox tapeworm detectable?

What helps with a fox tapeworm infection?

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What is a fox tapeworm?

Not only foxes but also dogs can transmit the fox tapeworm © Milan Zygmunt / Shutterstock.com

The tapeworm, also known as Echinococcus in specialist circles, is a berry and mushroom picker, especially in autumn. Although an infection with the pathogen is very rare, it should not be taken lightly. Untreated, it can lead to severe liver damage.

In Europe there is another family member besides the fox tapeworm (Echinococcus multilocularis): the dog tapeworm (Echinococcus granulosus). However, the latter is only very rarely found in Germany. “Infection with the dog tapeworm usually only occurs during prolonged stays in endemic areas such as Southeast Europe or North Africa, where it is very common. It is also possible to become infected through an infected dog that has been imported from the aforementioned regions,” said Dr.

Beate Grüner, head of the fox tapeworm special outpatient clinic at the University Hospital of Ulm.

The Echinococcus is a so-called endoparasite. Because it does not have its own intestine, but absorbs nutrients directly via the body surface, it needs a host organism in whose small intestine it can nestle in order to survive. Echinococcus multilocularis, or “the multi-chambered one”, is about 1-3 millimetres long and consists of several limbs. The last limb, the reproductive organ, contains up to 200 eggs in which new worm larvae mature.

The infectious tapeworm eggs then end up in the environment with the excrement of a fox and contaminate the soil, near-ground plants and fruit.

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How high is the risk of infection?

The disease caused by fox tapeworm eggs is called alveolar echinococcosis. As the Robert Koch Institute published in the Infection Pedemiology Yearbook, a total of 26 cases of echinococcosis caused by a fox tapeworm were reported in 2016. The incidence was particularly high in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, but only 17 patients actually reported being infected in Germany. Greece and the Philippines were mentioned as other possible infection countries.

The rumour that eating wild berries or mushrooms is particularly dangerous is still persistent today. Yet the fruits of the forest are usually not the culprits. In fact, studies have so far been unable to prove that this is a risk factor. What is certain, however, is that the infectious eggs must be swallowed in order to trigger the disease in humans.

But even experts can only guess how exactly they enter the organism. “Any activity that involves bringing the hand, which was previously in the contaminated area, to the mouth theoretically represents a risk factor. It is also possible that transmission through dust occurs during agricultural activities,” said Dr. Grüner. Therefore, occupational groups such as farmers or foresters who carry out daily forest and soil work are particularly at risk.

In addition, home-grown vegetable and spice plants also appear to be associated with a certain risk.

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Which animals transmit the fox tapeworm?

Cat lovers have nothing to fear when it comes to the transmission of tapeworm eggs. Because the house cat is only very rarely attacked by the pathogen. Dogs on the other hand are probably not man’s best friend in this respect. Because although they are only the second choice of the pathogen, they can also become hosts. In fact, dogs are the most important risk factor in the transmission of the fox tapeworm.

Through dog-typical behaviour – sniffing, hunting, licking – the infectious eggs quickly pass from the four-legged friend to the master. “For the owners of free-range dogs, the risk of infection is up to 18 times higher, especially in heavily infested areas such as the Allgäu or the foothills of the Alps,” says Dr. Grüner.

To be on the safe side, you’d better keep your four-legged friend on a leash the next time you go for a walk in the woods and have him regularly checked for worming and, if necessary, dewormed.

How do I protect myself from the pathogen?

The risk of contracting fox tapeworms through berries is very low © Dmitrijs Bindemanis / Shutterstock.com

Hygiene is the be-all and end-all as a preventive measure. This does not mean that you have to disinfect everything meticulously from now on. Simple hygiene measures are quite sufficient to protect yourself not only against a fox tapeworm, but also against all kinds of other microorganisms. In concrete terms this means: Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands!

Fruit and vegetables grown close to the ground (from the forest as well as from your own garden) should also always be washed before consumption.

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Unfortunately, a household freezer cannot do much damage to fox tapeworm eggs, they can survive temperatures as low as -20°C without problems. However, they are very sensitive to heat – heating above 60°C kills them reliably.

Unfortunately, the last and most important weapon in the fight against pathogens such as Echinococcus often receives far too little attention: the immune system. It is quite possible that you may have already made the acquaintance of the fox tapeworm on one of your walks, but that your immune system was able to fend off the pathogen. “Not every contact with the pathogen necessarily leads to illness,” says Dr. Grüner.

“People with a weakened immune system are more susceptible to echinococcosis than those with a good immune system.”

When is a fox tapeworm detectable?

About half of all echinococcoses, and the tendency is rising, are diagnosed by chance, for example during an imaging procedure at a checkup or a change of family doctor. “Until the disease is detected in an ultrasound or CT is recognizable, it takes 5 to 15 years, and complaints usually occur later,” says Dr. Grüner. This is what makes fox tapeworm disease so dangerous: it goes undetected for many years.

During this time, the pathogen, whose target organ is mainly the liver, can cause severe organ and vessel damage, including in the area of the bile ducts. This is because the worm larvae cause the formation of cyst-like structures that damage the organs. Typical symptoms that could indicate echinococcosis are, for example, a feeling of pressure in the right upper abdomen, malaise or stomach and abdominal pain.

“Many patients do not show any symptoms at all, others have specific liver complaints, but also unspecific symptoms such as loss of appetite and sometimes weight loss,” said Dr. Grüner.

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What helps with a fox tapeworm infection?

Although echinococcosis can be well treated with medication today, the therapy means a long, if not lifelong treatment. This is because the drugs administered prevent further growth, but do not completely eliminate the tapeworm. “There is currently a lack of drugs that reliably kill the pathogen. A definitive cure can only be achieved through surgery in which the infected tissue is completely removed,” said Dr. Grüner.

Those who have so far been rather reluctant to search for berries or mushrooms can now (with subsequent hygienic processing) take the opportunity to do so. An eager gatherer who was there before you would then be the only thing that could still worm you. Because whether you get infected or not is literally up to you.