Public health aspects of dirofilariasis in the United States

  • Theis J
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Abstract

Coin lesions in the human lung present significant differential diagnostic problems to the physician. There are at least 20 known causes of such lesions, including neoplastic lesions, infectious diseases, and granulomas. The human medical literature contains many misconceptions about the life cycle of Dirofilaria immitis, including the method of entry of the infective-stage larvae and the development of the young adult worm. These misconceptions have obscured the recognition of the clinical presentation of pulmonary dirofilariasis and the potential for D. immitis to lodge in many other areas of the human body besides the lung. Exposure to infective larvae of D. immitis is more common in humans than is currently recognized. Reported cases in humans reflect the prevalence in the canine population in areas of the United States. The veterinary literature provides compelling evidence that D. immitis is a vascular parasite, not an intracardiac one. Its presence in the right ventricle is a post-mortem artifact, because it has never been shown to be there by echocardiography or angiography in a living dog, even though these techniques have demonstrated adult D. immitis in the pulmonary, femoral, and hepatic arteries; posterior vena cava; and right atrium of live dogs. Physicians have taken the name "heartworm" literally, believing that the worm lives in the heart and only after it dies does it embolize to the pulmonary artery. However, the coin lesion is spherical in shape, not pyramidal, as embolic infarcts to the lung in humans are known to be. The coin lesion is an end-stage result of the parasite's death in the vascular bed of the lungs and the stimulation of a pneumonitis followed by granuloma formation. This pneumonitis phase of human pulmonary dirofilariasis is often not recognized by the radiologist because of the way pneumonitis is diagnosed and treated and because the developing nodule is obscured by the lung inflammation. Serologic methods for use in humans are needed for clinical evaluations of patients with pneumonitis living in highly enzootic D. immitis regions. As well, epidemiological surveys are needed to determine the real extent of this zoonotic infection. © 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Dirofilaria immitis
  • Heartworm
  • Human dirofilariasis
  • Zoonosis

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Authors

  • J. H. Theis

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