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Backyard Raccoon 'Latrines' Harbor Hidden Dangers
Date:8/14/2009

Transmission of infectious parasite, though rare, can damage the brain, experts say,,

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 feces?

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."

Eliminating tempting 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, she said.

A report on the infectious disease risk associa
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