ULYANOVSK, Russia -- Did some 25 cadets at a Defense Ministry military academy in this Volga River city become infected with dog tapeworm from carelessly petting a stray dog?
That's the explanation that administrators at the Suvorov Guards Military Academy in Ulyanovsk have offered preliminarily as they look into the unprecedented outbreak that was discovered during routine medical checkups late last month.
But many of the cadets' parents and academy staff are unconvinced and are calling for a transparent investigation.
"There was a general meeting at which the head of the academy told how he served in Afghanistan and how they have all sorts of infections there, but he never got sick because he regularly washed his hands," one civilian instructor at the academy told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "There are various theories going around. The epidemiologist said that it is impossible to become infected during the winter, which means that they must have gotten it several months ago."
The Ulyanovsk tapeworm outbreak is extraordinary. Over the last five years, local officials say, there have been 28 recorded cases of dog tapeworm infections in people -- all of them isolated incidents. In the military-academy case, there were at least 25 infections among cadets from the fifth to the 11th classes that were all contracted within a short period of time.
"Judge for yourself," said Sergei Kuznetsov, the father of a 10th-class cadet who was found to be infected. "There are 500 students at the academy. With the staff, at least 600 people (actually about 800 -- eds.). They'd need to line up and each one of them kiss that dog's ass for their version to work. They told [the cadets], 'Pet a dog.' Did every squad and every platoon pet that dog? They don't have anything better to do than go around kissing and petting dogs? They don't let the cadets out on their own at all. If they get caught playing soccer with a homemade ball they get demerits."
Local health officials do not rule out that more infections may be found.
"It is an unprecedented case," said State Duma Deputy Aleksei Kurinny, who was one of the first to publicly report the outbreak. "If there was a dog or some sort of everyday contact, there would be isolated infections of three or four people. But here we have a mass infection -- 25 people from one group. The infection can only come orally. Since so much time has passed, it is difficult to tell if there was some contaminated food like unwashed apples or contaminated water."
Parents of the victims and Kurinny have requested that prosecutors open an investigation into the infections, which they believe might also be found at other military establishments in the region. Ulyanovsk military prosecutor Maksim Nechukhayev told RFE/RL that his office has already opened an investigation.
"So far the Defense Ministry has acted in a very opaque way," Kurinny told RFE/RL. "Our specialists don't know what the military has found or what their tests have shown. This is not acceptable considering that we are talking about children and civilians."
There is no information about the outbreak on the academy's website, and the Defense Ministry has only issued a statement saying there is no current health threat to the cadets there.
The so-called definitive host -- where the parasites reach maturity and reproduce -- for the dog tapeworm is dogs and other canids, including foxes, wolves, and dingoes. However, the larval cysts can be found in the fur of infected dogs and transferred to intermediate hosts, including humans. They can also be ingested from contaminated food or water. They are not transmissible from human to human.
Ingested orally, the slow-growing cysts lodge in various locations, most often the lungs and the liver. Left untreated, they can be fatal.
Treatment often requires surgical removal of cysts, which can be perilous because rupturing the cyst can produce anaphylactic shock. There are also antiparasitic drug treatments available which must be taken over a period of several months.
"My son's health is my main concern," Kuznetsov told RFE/RL. "I used to be a veterinarian and I know that the cysts don't just disappear. My Nikita has two cysts in his lungs and three in his liver. He will need two serious operations in his chest and abdomen. Imagine a cyst full of fluid that is about the size of a five-ruble coin (25 millimeters). They say that if you take the medicine instead, the cysts will dry out. But you still have an alien substance inside your body."
Experts estimate that the cadets were infected sometime in the autumn, at the latest. At that time, food was provided to the academy by an Ulyanovsk firm called Torgovy Dom SPP. SPP Director Sergei Kondryev told RFE/RL he doubts that food provided by his firm caused the infections.
"We don't know the results of any investigations and no one has given us anything official," he told RFE/RL. "[The state consumer-protection agency] Rospotrebnadzor has requested our documentation, and that is all. Did something happen a year ago? I'm not sure. Everything we provided was checked and the academy never rejected anything."
After December 15, 2018, the contract to provide food for the academy was taken over by a firm called Pishchevik, which is part of the Konkord catering group that is owned by tycoon Yevgeny
Prigozhin, a longtime acquaintance of President Vladimir Putin, is a controversial figure who controls the Vagner mercenary company, whose fighters have been identified in Ukraine and Syria; and the Internet Research Agency, the so-called St. Petersburg troll factory that is believed to have carried out aggressive influence campaigns in Western Europe and the United States.
Kondryev refused to discuss why SPP did not make any efforts to keep the lucrative contract. One of the unsubstantiated conspiracy theories in the air around the mystery is that some food may have been contaminated intentionally as part of a commercial dispute to discredit a competitor.
Further conspiratorial speculation was fueled when a commander from the academy joked at the general meeting about the outbreak that it was an American diversion against Russia in which the CIA infected a dog and let it loose among the cadets. Since the meeting, various versions of that theory have been circulating, parents told RFE/RL.
Aleksandr Brazhko, an activist with the local Consumers' Union in Ulyanovsk, sent an open appeal to Anna Kuznetsova, Putin's ombudswoman on the rights of children, in which he argued that the Defense Ministry might conceal information vital to public safety in order to protect itself and urged that the Health Ministry and the Public Chamber launch its own investigation "without the participation of interested parties."
"In this case the real cause of the infection can only be established by an independent commission," Brazhko told RFE/RL. "There is an ironclad rule -- when the cash register comes up short, you don't ask the cashier to investigate. The head of the academy represents the interests of the academy and when something conflicts with those interests, he is obligated to say that there is no problem."
Kuznetsov said he plans to take his son to Moscow at his own expense for an examination and, if necessary, to arrange for surgery himself.
"The Defense Ministry will never take such responsibility upon itself," he said, "and will never admit that something was their fault."
As for the military's investigation, he said: "I only know that in the end they will find the guilty party -- the cadets and a stray dog."