Residents of rural villages in northwestern China may someday be rid of a potentially fatal parasite thanks to the cooperative efforts of Chinese scientists and a Brigham Young University professor.

BYU zoologist Ferron L. Andersen received $60,262 from the Thrasher Research Fund to continue work in the province of Xinjiang, China, aimed at controlling the parasite that causes cystic hydatid disease, the No. 1 infectious disease in the area.Of the 13 million people living in the province, half are at risk for hydatid disease, Andersen said.

The hydatid parasite is found on every major continent in the world and is common in rural agricultural areas. Infected herding dogs pass the parasite through feces to grazing animals such as sheep, cows, pigs and camels. The parasite settles in the internal organs of such animals; dogs become reinfected when they feed on the viscera of infected grazing animals.

Human beings, particularly children, pick up the tiny hydatid tapeworm - which is 4 to 6 millimeters in size - through contact with infected dogs. In humans, the parasite lodges in internal organs, primarily the liver and lungs, where it causes cysts to grow.

The slow-growing cysts usually go undetected until they cause liver malfunction or labored breathing - which occur 10 to 30 years after infection. Cysts are typically the size of a softball in the liver and an egg in the lungs when they begin causing problems, Andersen said. The cysts must be removed surgically.

In the United States, the hydatid parasite is predominantly found in Utah. The disease was first reported in Utah in 1944 and is believed to have been carried into the state by imported Australian sheep dogs.

Anderson developed his expertise in prevention of the hydatid parasite working with local and state health agencies, the Department of Agriculture and other organizations to control spread of the disease in San-pete County beginning in 1970.

"Since 1944 we have had about 50 surgical cases," Andersen said. The disease has been controlled in Utah since 1983.

In 1985, a visiting Chinese scientist invited Andersen to help test and compare hydatid control programs being instituted in Xinjiang. Andersen and another BYU professor, Dennis Tolley of the statistics department, serve on the advisory board of the National Hydatid Disease Center in Xinjiang, China.

"We used the same program as in central Utah but modified for the rural villages," Andersen said. "They were able to see you can indeed control this disease in endemic villages by implementation of preventive and control measures that were tested earlier in Central Utah."

Philanthropist E.W. "Al" Thrasher, of Hillsborough, Calif., established the Thrasher Research Fund 14 years ago to support research aimed at improving the health of children throughout the world. The fund is administered under the auspices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.