The Santa Barbara County Health Dept. announced Wednesday that samples from UCSB’s Orfalea Family Children’s Center on West Campus tested positive for the disease Raccoon Roundworm. Health officials tested the site after an 11-month-old boy who attended the center contracted the potentially fatal disease, though it has not been determined if he was infected at that site.
The disease comes from the eggs of roundworms that live in raccoons and other animals. It is very rare and only 12 cases have been reported worldwide in the past 20 years; four resulted in death.
The children’s center asked the Santa Barbara County Health Dept. to perform the tests after the child was admitted to Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital on April 24 with Baylisascaris, commonly known as “Raccoon Roundworm” – a disease that damages the internal organs and nervous system of those infected. The child was released on May 8 in “good condition,” but it is unknown if there will be long-term effects, said Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital information director Janet O’Neill.
“He was in relatively good condition, he was eating regularly,” she said. “We can’t really make a prognosis [on permanent damage] but it’s not very hopeful. Other people have contracted this disease with terrible results.”
There is no available cure for Baylisascaris and the damage it causes is irreversible.
The child was infected with the disease after consuming Baylisascaris procyonis (BP) eggs from an unknown contaminated source. The children’s center – a university-run day care center for the children of students and faculty members – was one of several locations tested and is where the child was most likely infected, said Dr. Elliot Schulman, medical director for the Santa Barbara County Health Dept.
“There was plenty of evidence of Raccoon activity [at the children’s center] and we know that the majority of the raccoons in this area are infected,” Schulman said. “It would have been surprising if they didn’t find evidence of this disease.”
There are numerous potentially contaminated sites throughout the Isla Vista area, including the Faculty Housing facility, all campus housing and a private residence at Coal Oil Point, all of which were examined and cleaned up recently.
“The raccoons are endemic to all of these areas and so we had to do some cleanup,” said Larry Parsons, acting director of Environmental Health and Safety at UCSB.
Since the testing, the children’s center has undergone an extensive cleanup process and parents have been notified of the situation.
“We have taken a proactive stance on this.” children’s center director Mary Ray said. “We’re doing some major cleanup, and sent out informative messages and warnings to all of the parents so that they are informed.”
The cleanup procedure includes sanitizing all outside play areas; removing all outside caged pets, outdoor carpeting, and sensory tables containing birdseed and foodstuffs; and replacing all sandbox sand and play yard sod.
In an effort to keep raccoons off the premesis, the children’s center has arranged daily trash pickup for outdoor trashcans, implemented daily inspection of grounds by children’s center staff and animal control personnel, cut away perimeter shrubs, and installed a low voltage “hot wire” along the entire fence to be activated at night.
BP is not harmful to the raccoons, and may be contracted by other carnivores as well. The disease can spread when a human or other animal accidentally ingests the infective eggs from soil, water, hands or other objects that have come into contact with raccoon feces. When the eggs are ingested, the larve hatch in the intestine and travel through the internal organs, such as the liver, brain, spinal cord and muscles, a process called larve migrans syndrome.
The possibility of other people becoming infected with the disease is highly unlikely due to its rare nature, Schulman said.
“I think the risk [of infection] is relatively remote because in terms of known cases there are only about a dozen cases in the past 20 years,” he said. “So it’s really hard to quantify it. … [The risk] is really small from what we know from past experiences.”
There is no way to tell if a raccoon is infected with the disease, and studies show that up to two-thirds of all raccoons in California are infected.
“If you see a raccoon in California … I think you have to assume it’s infected,” Schulman said.
Infected raccoons can spread millions of BP eggs, which become infective within two to four weeks through their feces. The eggs are resistant to most environmental conditions and can survive outside a host for two to three years.
Symptoms of the infection may not appear for up to a week after ingestion, and their severity depends on the number of eggs ingested and where the larvae migrate within the body. Symptoms may include nausea, fatigue, liver enlargement, loss of coordination, loss of attention span, loss of muscle control, coma, brain damage and blindness.
Young children and developmentally disabled people are at highest risk of contacting Raccoon Roundworm because they are more likely to put dirty fingers or objects in their mouths. Hunters, trappers, taxidermists and wildlife rehabilitators are also at high risk of contacting the disease.
To prevent infestation, people should avoid contact with raccoons and their feces and discourage raccoons from living near their homes. Raccoon feces are usually dark and oval-shaped, have a strong odor, and often contain undigested seeds or other food items. To eliminate eggs, raccoon feces and contaminated materials should be removed carefully and burned, buried or sent to a landfill. For assistance and instruction on removing raccoon feces, contact the local animal control office.
Those concerned about possible contact or infection are advised to contact their health care providers immediately. More information on Raccoon Roundworm can be found at the Santa Barbara County Health Dept.’s webpage at .