Woman's tingling legs turned out to be parasite in her back

Doctors discovered the parasite Echinococcus granulosus lodged in a 35-year-old woman's spine.

Story highlights

  • A parasitic tapeworm caused a cystic lesion in a French woman's vertebrae
  • WHO lists Echinococcosis as a neglected tropical disease

(CNN)The woman who came into the emergency room in Dijon, France, said she had been having difficulty riding her horse for three months. Her symptoms had only gotten worse, from weakness to falls to feeling electric shocks in both legs.

After a battery of tests, doctors discovered a parasitic worm hiding out in her spine.
    When Drs. Marine Jacquier and Lionel Piroth of the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Dijon conducted an MRI exam of her spine, they found an abnormal lobed lump in her ninth thoracic vertebra, they wrote along with an image published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine. Further testing revealed the tapeworm, Echinococcus granulosus, to have caused the woman's symptoms.
    When they first saw the MRI scan, "to be perfectly honest, we couldn't imagine it could be echinococcosis," Piroth said. He submitted the image to the journal in order to educate physicians about the possibility of this disease, which is uncommon both in France and in the area of the woman's body it was found.
    Echinococcus worms mainly cause two diseases in humans: cystic echinococcosis and alveolar echinococcosis. The disease is zoonotic, meaning it is transferred to humans by animals, in this case dogs, which in turn are infected by ungulates like cattle or sheep. According to the World Health Organization, which lists echinococcosis as a neglected tropical disease, more than 1 million people worldwide are affected with echinococcosis at any given time.
    But while the disease is certainly neglected, it is not solely tropical, said Dr. Dominique Vuitton, a professor emeritus at the University of Franche-Comté and a member of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Prevention and Treatment of Human Echinococcosis. Almost every nation worldwide has seen cases of the disease, added Vuitton, who was not involved in the woman's treatment.
    Although it is uncommon to see Echinococcus in developed countries, the parasite causes disease in up to 10% of the population in endemic countries such as Argentina, Peru and China, according to WHO. In hyperendemic regions of South America, between 20% and 95% of slaughtered livestock have the disease.