Owning pets has been proven to have a huge positive impact on the development and wellbeing of children but with pet ownership, comes responsibility to the wider community. ESCCAP UK and Ireland is a national non-profit organisation dedicated to reducing the parasite risks presented by pets and warns that a parasitic worm called Toxocara, commonly found in dogs and cats, could pose a significant risk to the health of children. The parasite probably affects as many non-pet owners as pet owners and while well known to cause vision problems, it has also been strongly linked to the development of many common chronic childhood diseases that persist into adulthood. Happily, infection with the parasite can be avoided by following simple advice.
Studies performed worldwide have established strong links between Toxocara infection and the development of asthma, allergies and even epilepsy. One study performed in the USA suggested that Toxocara infection has a negative impact on learning, with a significant number of children previously or currently infected with the parasite scoring lower on tests for manual and verbal dexterity, maths and reading skills.
Toxocara lives in the guts of cats and dogs and lays eggs which are passed out in the animal’s stools. Regular treatment with an appropriate wormer can help reduce this by keeping worm numbers low. Most people that become infected in the UK do so because they have accidentally eaten the parasite’s infective eggs, although it is also possible to become infected by eating the larval stages of the parasite in undercooked meat. After hatching in the gut, Toxocara larvae migrate through body tissues of the infected person, causing damage as they go and generating a wide range of symptoms. Children are most at risk of infection. Interestingly, studies have shown that actually owning a pet does not seem to significantly increase the risk of becoming infected with Toxocara, suggesting that most people become infected from parasite eggs that are present in the environment.
Toxocara eggs are not immediately infective after being passed by animals, instead taking a few weeks to develop. They also remain in situ long after animal waste has been washed away naturally. This means that areas that look clean can actually be heavily contaminated with infective eggs, presenting a significant infection risk to children.
ESCCAP UK and Ireland offer the following advice for parents, child carers and pet owners to reduce the risk of infection:
More information about Toxocara and other parasites affecting pets can be found at www.esccapuk.org.uk. By arming themselves with the facts, parents, child carers and pet owners can help protect children and other vulnerable people from the potentially serious and long term health problems caused by this easily targeted worm.