By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
One month ago, King County Public Health went public with alarming news: A toddler somewhere in the county had become severely ill with a rare disease linked to parasites found in raccoon droppings.
It’s so rare that this was the first case ever reported in our state, one of fewer than 30 reported in the U.S. since 1973.
This weekend, we learned the young patient is a 20-month-old West Seattle boy named Reed. His mom, Mandy Hall, told her family’s story publicly for the first time, in an online group, and contacted WSB too, because she is determined to educate as many people as possible about the roundworm known as Baylisascaris.
Their terrifying ordeal is not over yet, but Reed “continues to improve literally by the minute,” Mandy said.
Here’s how it began: “On April 26th, I called Reed’s pediatrician because he was sleeping so much. He had been sleeping long hours through the night and taking naps over 3 hours for a few days. This day, by the afternoon he had only been awake for 2 hours. They said it was likely a growth spurt and commented on great timing with me being due with our baby girl the following day … But something in me didn’t feel right. I tried setting him down to walk when he woke and his balance was off.”
She called her husband to leave work and return to their home by Fauntleroy Park, and when he arrived 15 minutes later, “Reed’s eyes weren’t moving right. He was staring off and not seeing us where we were. We immediately got in the car and left filled with so much worry. Over the next four days, we watched our sweet, spunky boy lose the ability to do anything other than swallow and breathe on his own. We sat in a hospital bed holding our baby whose eyes did not move, who didn’t react to anything, who shook with terrible tremors constantly, and our hearts have never been so broken.”
They had no idea what was wrong, but after a barrage of tests – including MRIs, blood work, even a bone-marrow biopsy – the hospital came up with likely Baylisascaris – which had to be (and was) verified by the Centers for Disease Control – as well as a form of encephalomyelitis that was causing brain swelling. They were sent home when there were no more tests and treatment to offer, but, Mandy said, the doctors also had no idea how much of a recovery Reed would make – he still could not sit up, talk, or even move his eyes purposefully.
While the family dealt with all this, Mandy went to the hospital to deliver Reed’s new little sister Piper, and was allowed to go home less than 24 hours later so the family could be together as they continued dealing with Reed’s illness (which is NOT contagious, person-to-person).
“The next week, the CDC and state Health Department came to our home to test soil and feces samples in a large tree on the edge of Fauntleroy Park in our yard,” Mandy said. “Shortly after, we received the devastating news that Reed’s blood and spinal fluid tested positive for Baylisascaris. They told us this was consistent with Baylisascaris-positive raccoon droppings and dirt tested from in and around our backyard tree. We were devastated once again, and now so uncertain of whether Reed would ever have a possibility of living the life he once had.”
But he is recovering, Mandy says: “Our little man has proved that he has the strongest mind, body and soul I’ve ever witnessed. Over the last month, Reed has learned to sit, crawl, grab toys, hold a cup, feed himself, talk, walk and play all over again. … My husband and I can visibly notice the difference day to day with his walking improving and getting faster, his motor skills being more defined, his eyes converging and focusing correctly …”
There is no way to test if the parasite is completely out of Reed’s system, Mandy says, so he was treated for a month – longer than prescribed – with an anti-parasite drug. He also received high-dose steroids, which reduced the swelling of his brain so the anti-parasite drug could get to it. He’ll be going back to Children’s Hospital this week for neurology followups, and he’s getting therapy at home including occupational and speech: “He is doing so well with therapy that we will soon start to reduce the number of times per week, which is great.”
She is telling their story because she wants others to be aware: “People should know to not only avoid droppings in general but if there is a latrine area near any living spaces to immediately have it cleaned up. The only thing that can truly kill the parasite eggs is very high temperatures, so – boiling water or weed torch. We had never seen raccoons in our yard before but I saw some last year near our house and assumed they lived in Fauntleroy Park since we have other animals in our yard (coyotes, squirrels, etc). We did notice some droppings around the tree but never knew they could be deadly and also weren’t aware of latrines in general.
“This deadly disease from raccoons in my backyard could be the same raccoons that run through your yard and climb your trees. While we are working with the CDC on cleanup for the latrine in our tree, that won’t eliminate this disease from our parks, West Seattle, and all of Seattle. I ask that you not only educate yourself, but tell (everyone) you know about this horrible disease to raise awareness to keep all of our children safe…. The past six weeks of my life have been unimaginable. I hope that sharing Reed’s story and raising awareness within our community will increase all of our children’s safety.”
MORE INFORMATION: The CDC’s page about baylisascaris advises:
You may discourage raccoons from living in and around your home or parks by taking these steps:
*prevent access to food
*keep trash containers tightly closed
*close off access to attics and basements
*keep sandboxes covered when not in use (raccoons may use sandboxes as a latrine)
*remove fish ponds — they eat the fish and drink the water
*eliminate water sources
*remove bird feeders
*clear brush so raccoons are not likely to make a den on your property
This King County webpage has more information, too.