Liver flukes under scrutiny in new British study

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An adult Fasciola hepatica. Photo: I, Flukeman, GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
An adult Fasciola hepatica. Photo: I, Flukeman, GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Researchers hope to learn more about the impact of liver fluke infection in horses across Britain in a study.

The work is being undertaken by University of Liverpool researchers, who are seeking the help of veterinarians and horse owners across Britain.

The University of Liverpool team has conducted world-leading research into liver fluke infections.

The liver fluke Fasciola hepatica is a parasitic worm. Adult flukes have a flat leaf-like body of up to 3cm and are found in the bile ducts of the liver.

It primarily affects cattle and sheep, although it can infect other mammals, including humans and horses.

Infections are becoming increasingly common and are now considered a significant animal health and welfare problem.

Flukes also have an economic cost, with infections estimated to cost the UK livestock industry £300 million a year.

Little is known about the extent of liver fluke infections in British horses – something which the University of Liverpool Veterinary Parasitology Research Group wants to change.

The team wants to define the prevalence of the infection, and establish whether horses with liver disease are more likely to have flukes than healthy animals.

The researchers are asking British vets to provide blood samples, with the owner’s consent, from horses that are either confirmed or suspected of having liver disease. Supplied samples will undergo testing to determine if antibodies to liver flukes are present.

The law requires that samples can only be taken as part of steps to clinically treat the horse, meaning samples must effectively be spare blood.

Vets are requested to include details of clinical signs as well as any blood or biochemical test results.

The researchers hope to telephone and question owners about aspects of the case.

Vets will be supplied with the test results.

The liver fluke team at the university are conducting research across several fronts, working on finding better ways to control fluke infection in sheep and cattle by designing new diagnostic tests, developing strategic control programmes and sustainable use of drug treatments, and supporting vaccine development.

They are also working to determine how climate and other global changes to the livestock industry will affect prevalence of the disease and development of drug resistance.

The university’s researchers have sequenced the genome of F. hepatica and are working to identify the genetic basis of drug resistance.

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