A recent New York Times article found here brings alarming news for parents: a parasite that is often found in stray dogs and cats has been found across the nation in places where children play, and children exposed to the parasite could develop problems with their breathing, liver function, eyesight and their cognitive skills. Don’t want to be an alarmist here, but this deserves our attention.

The parasite, called Toxocara, lives in the intestines of cats and dogs, especially strays. Microscopic eggs from Toxocara are shed in the animals’ feces, contaminating yards, playgrounds and sandboxes. These eggs can be unintentionally swallowed by children playing in these areas, especially children who like to put things in their mouths and don’t often wash their hands (which would basically be all children). After entering the body, the eggs hatch into larvae that penetrate through walls of the digestive tract and can wriggle through the body to a child’s liver, lungs, eyes, and even the brain.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) tracks positive Toxocara tests, and estimated in September 2017 that about 5 percent of the US population have ingested the larvae. Of particular alarm is the discovery that among African-Americans the rate was almost 7 percent, and among people living below the poverty line, the infection rate was 10 percent.

Signs of Toxocara infection are subtle: a slight fever, fatigue, abdominal pain and cough– symptoms that describe any number of illnesses. If untreated it may clear up on its own, although scientists have no idea how long it stays in the system (with the potential to cause further damage) before clearing up. But since Toxocara has received little attention from research scientists, and many doctors do not test for it (or even know much about the parasite), we don’t know enough about the potential dangers of this disease.

The few scientists who have studied its impact on the brain have made alarming discoveries. Dr. Celia Holland, a parasitology professor at Trinity College in Dublin, has determined that mice with Toxocara larvae in the brain showed reduced learning ability and less inclination to explore. The greater the degree of infection, the greater the impairment. Researchers at SUNY Downstate Medical Center found that mean test scores were lower among children who tested positive for exposure to Toxocara, even after accounting for other known influences such as household income and lead levels in blood.

The New York Times reports that Toxocara eggs or larvae were recently found in nine NYC parks. There is potential for a Toxocara infection wherever there are stray dogs and cats around parks and playgrounds nationwide. The few doctors focused on this have had difficulty getting grant money to further study the effects of the infection, and are lobbying Congress to call for more studies.

The bottom line here? Whenever your kids play outside in a playground or park, make sure they WASH/SANITIZE THEIR HANDS frequently, especially if they are quick to put their hands in their mouths. Even if there are no stray dogs or cats in sight. It can’t hurt, and it may well help avoid an infection. Also, if your little one comes down with a bug and has spent a lot of time in parks and playgrounds, it may make sense to ask your doctor to test for Toxocara. Better safe than sorry!