If you live in the suburbs of Chicago (or probably many other cities as well), chances are pretty good that you live close to a raccoon latrine. Raccoons like to defecate in specific areas (raccoon latrines) which can become highly contaminated with eggs of Baylisascaris procyonis, the raccoon roundworm. Human disease caused by this parasite is rare, but when it occurs, it can be devastating. Infected raccoons can shed around 20 000 Baylisacaris eggs per gram of feces (see image right), and the eggs can survive for long periods in the environment, so it’s easy to see how biohazardous a raccoon latrine could be.
A study in the upcoming edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases (Page et al) looked at 119 backyards in the Chicago suburbs. Latrines were found in 51% of yards, with up to six latrines per yard! Baylisascaris eggs were found in samples collected from 23% of latrines. The likelihood of having a latrine in the yard was lower in houses farther away from forested areas. No other factors were identified as associated with the presence of a latrine, however there was a trend towards increased likelihood if a food source (e.g. bird feeder) was present.
The fact that raccoon latrines are so common and that a high percentage of raccoons shed Baylisascaris should raise concern, and emphasize the need for good hygiene. At the same time, the rarity of disease despite the widespread presence of infected raccoons should be remembered. You don’t get infected by walking by a raccoon latrine, you get infected by ingesting (swallowing) the parasite. Avoiding this is simple, and as the folks at Barfblog (a food safety blog) would say, the key is: "Don’t eat poop". Simple measures can reduce the risk, such as avoiding contact with raccoon feces and washing your hands after being in potentially contaminated areas. Young kids are at highest risk because they are more likely to put things in their mouths, so keeping children away from areas potentially contaminated by raccoon feces is important, along with good attention to hand hygiene.
Since raccoon latrines are an obvious source of infection and many (of the limited number of) human cases have been where latrines were close to childrens’ play areas, eliminating latrines is also a good idea. Details on cleaning up latrines are available in an earlier Worms & Germs post.