SASKATCHEWAN (CBC) - Parents should be on alert for raccoon roundworm, a rare parasite
transmitted through contact with the animal's feces, which has left an infant with brain damage and a teenager blind, says New York City's health department.
Raccoon roundworm or Baylisascaris procyonis is an extremely rare parasitic infection in humans that can cause nausea, nerve damage and even death.
People become infected by swallowing the parasite's eggs that are shed in the feces of infected raccoons.
Parents should supervise children to keep them away from raccoon feces, Sally Slavinski, a spokeswoman for the city's health department, said Monday.
Any droppings should be picked up using gloves and disposed of in trash bags.
There are fewer than 30 cases reported in the medical literature, the city noted in a health alert it sent to the city's doctors on April 9.
Roundworms lay eggs in feces that hatch after being invested and travel through the body, including to the brain.
The infant has been hospitalized since suffering seizures and spinal problems last October and now has permanent brain damage.
Older news about the same thing:
"They often don't know a child had the parasite
until they do an autopsy," Henke said
KINGSVILLE - A parasite
carried by raccoons that can kill humans has been found in Corpus Christi, researchers at Texas A&M University-Kingsville's Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Institute announced last week.
The parasite is especially dangerous to children, said institute biologist Scott Henke.
"It is a parasite that can cause blindness, paralysis and death in humans," Henke said. "We found that 70 percent of the raccoons tested in housing developments on the Oso Creek had the parasite.''
Scientists didn't think the parasite existed in Texas, until researchers found it in autopsies on raccoons living along Oso Creekwhile studying how raccoons and humans interrelate in areas where people are encroaching on raccoon habitat, Henke said.
"Now we are going to see if the parasites
are common in raccoons in other major Texas cities," Henke said. "We will be studying raccoons in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio and will be doing a more thorough study of Corpus Christi."
The parasite, Baylisascaris procyonis, is a large intestinal parasite, commonly called a roundworm.
The eggs are found in raccoon feces, and areas near streams and wetlands may be heavily seeded with the eggs, Henke said.
"It is the kind of thing where it is very easy to get, but it isn't very widespread," he said. "The eggs could stick to a child's ball in the backyard and the child could put his fingers in his mouth. The eggs could be on vegetables in a garden. They are very sticky and hard to wash off, and they are microscopic, so you can't see them.''
After the eggs enter the human system, they most commonly attack the brain or the retina of the eye, causing blindness, Henke said.
"The larvae make tunnels into the human brain," he said. "It can cause paralysis and neurological damage and death. Adults can survive with a few larvae tunneling in their brains, but it is harder for children because their brains are smaller. There is one 18-month-old boy in California who is blind and quadriplegic as a result of this parasite, and he was a perfectly healthy boy before."
Dr. Bruce Furness, a physician with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said that the center keeps no statistics on effects of the parasites. He said it is not required that physicians report its occurrence because there are no measures that state health departments can take to prevent people from contracting the parasite.
"We have no idea how prevalent it is," he said. "Any information we have would be purely anecdotal. The fact that we don't keep statistics doesn't mean the numbers are small. We just don't know."
Henke said that doctors in Texas need to start considering the possibility that patients are infested with the parasite when diagnosing diseases.
"Physicians in Texas have ruled it out before, because they didn't think it existed here," he said. "The problem is that it mimics so many other diseases. Common early symptoms are headaches, twitches and nausea."
The disease can be diagnosed by a tissue biopsy, but often by the time symptons appear, irreparable damage has been done, he said.
"They often don't know a child had the parasite until they do an autopsy," Henke said.
Henke said that killing raccoons isn't the answer to eradicating the disease.
"We have found in our studies that if raccoons are killed off, a younger population moves into replace them, and the raccoon population actually increases," Henke said. "So killing raccoons actually makes the raccoon problem worse."
He said the best way to keep from contracting the disease is to never keep a raccoon for a pet or leave food available for raccoons.
"To help minimize exposure, parents should stress good hygiene skills to their children, making them wash their hands thoroughly before eating and keeping their hands our of their mouths while playing outdoors," Henke said.
"One of the big problems is suburban encroachment into raccoon habitat," Henke said. "In places like Oso Creek that were recently rural, the risks may be higher."
The infant had a history of eating soil, and swallowing soil contaminated with raccoon feces is the most likely source of infection, the city's alert said. The 17-year-old lost sight in the right eye in January. Both are from Brooklyn.
"Avoiding Baylisascaris means avoiding ingestion of raccoon stool," veterinarian Scott Weese of the University of Guelph wrote in his blog, Worms & Germs, which promotes safe pet ownership.
"Sounds simple enough, but this is of particular concern with young children and people with developmental delays who are more likely to swallow contaminated dirt or stool, or put dirty/contaminated hands or objects in their mouths."
The city's alert did not include any details about how the teen was exposed.
In September 2005, Toronto Public Health issued a similar alert after a seven-year-old boy with a history of autism and developmental delays was infected with raccoon roundworm.
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