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Backyard raccoon 'latrines'
harbor hidden dangers
FRIDAY, Aug. 14 (HealthDay
News) -- As summer hits its stride,
many Americans are taking a moment to
step into their backyards and smell
the roses. And lilies. And, uh, raccoon
That's the case for
many Americans living near woods or
marshes. And backyard "raccoon
latrines" -- spots created by the
animal as a kind of shared public bathroom
-- are ground zero for the transmission
of a dangerous parasite called Baylisascaris
procyonis, researchers say.
Raccoons infected with
the intestinal roundworm tend to shed
about 20,000 of the parasite's egg for
every gram they leave behind in droppings,
the researchers noted. Human infection,
which can lead to the onset of encephalitis,
can occur when children's muddied hands
touch their mouth after inadvertently
playing in an infected backyard.
"Contact with any
fecal material, period, is a health
risk, but raccoons carry a parasite
which goes to the brain more often than
other parasites and has devastating
effects," explained the study's
lead author, L. Kristen Page, an associate
professor of ecology in the biology
department at Wheaton College in Illinois.
"It's true that
this might not seem like a big problem
because there have only been a few cases
documented so far," Page acknowledged.
"But when this parasite does strike
it almost always results in brain damage,
or deafness or blindness or profound
disability. So we'd like to help prevent
that by alerting the public as to the
easy steps people can take to protect
themselves and their kids."
food sources, such as garbage cans and
bird feeders, is one way to reduce the
chance that raccoons will set up shop
in the backyard, Page noted. Letting
a house pet roam the backyard from time
to time can also serve as a deterrent,
A report on the infectious
disease risk associated with raccoons
appears in the September issue of Emerging
Infected raccoons are
"fairly common" across the
United States, according to the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
although most raccoons show no symptoms.
Human infections, though,
are rare, the CDC reports. Less than
25 cases, including five that were fatal,
have been reported since 2003, though
the agency adds that additional cases
might have gone undetected because the
infection is difficult to diagnose.
Once ingested, symptoms
take a week or more to develop as eggs
turn into larvae and migrate through
various organs, such as the liver, brain
and spinal cord. Symptoms include nausea,
fatigue, loss of balance or muscle control,
liver enlargement and visual impairment.
For their study, the
researchers surveyed 119 suburban Chicago
backyards for evidence of raccoon latrines.
All the backyards were located near
a forest or marshland.
They found that about
half the inspected yards had raccoon
latrines, sometimes more than one, and
about a quarter of those contained parasitic
Yards closest to a forest
or marsh were most affected, the researchers
found. The presence of pet food, bird
feed or garbage outdoors made the latrines
more likely, they reported, whereas
outdoor pets had the opposite effect.
you have high densities of people and
raccoons, your children can be at risk,"
Page said. "Generally, the problem
is more prevalent in areas that are
not super hot because we know that heat
kills the parasite eggs."
Anyone who finds raccoon
droppings in their yard should clean
the area immediately, she said. "Parasite
eggs in fresh feces are not infective,"
she said. "It takes 30 days for
them to become infective. You want to
wear gloves and be careful, and if you're
not sure how old the pile is, you need
to be especially careful. But the risk
is much, much less if you're picking
it up fresh. And then I would also pour
boiling water on the spot where you
picked up the feces because that will
kill the remaining eggs."
Dr. Philip M. Tierno
Jr., director of clinical microbiology
and immunology at New York University
Langone Medical Center and a professor
of microbiology and pathology at the
NYU School of Medicine in New York City,
said that such measures are worth noting,
even if infection rate "is not
a major problem."
"When it occurs,
infection can be very dangerous,"
Tierno said, "So if you have any
sign, you should go to your health-care
provider and get tests run."
As for the issue of
raccoons in the backyard, he said it's
important to remember that they're wild
be in contact with them, or feed them
or leave out garbage or food that will
attract them," Tierno said. "And
when you see or smell one of their latrines
-- and it's like, wow! So you will certainly
smell it -- take steps to remove it
carefully but quickly."
The U.S. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention has more
on raccoons and infectious disease.
SOURCES: L. Kristen Page, Ph.D., associate
professor, ecology, Department of Biology,
Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill.; Philip
M. Tierno Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director,
Department of Clinical Microbiology
and Immunology, New York University
Langone Medical Center, and clinical
professor, microbiology and pathology,
NYU School of Medicine, New York City;
September 2009; Emerging Infectious
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