Tiny, infectious worm found in NY parks

Multi-lingual sign about Toxocara from dog feces, Bin your Poo, Queens, New York. (Photo by: Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Medical experts are warning parents to be vigilant, after a tiny worm that primarily infects cats and dogs, but can spread to humans, was found in parks in New York and Europe.

The Toxocara worm primarily lives inside the muscles, digestive systems, and feces of animals like cats and dogs, but can be transmitted to humans if a person consumes infected dirt.

While this isn't a major concern for adults, medical experts say they are concerned that children might inadvertently consume the parasite while playing.

Most Toxocara infections are asymptomatic, but in some cases can present symptoms like fever, fatigue, coughing, rash, or abdominal pain. Sometimes, in very rare cases, the parasite can reach the eye and cause blindness or cause neurological damage to the brain.

According to the CDC, an estimated 70 people, mostly children, are blinded by toxocariasis. Almost 14% of the U.S. population has been exposed to the parasite.

A recent study showed that Toxocara eggs were found in 10 of 15 of the playgrounds tested by scientists, with the highest number of positive samples coming from the Bronx. 

"People, especially those with children who tend to play in the sand or soil, should be aware of Toxocara," Donna Tyungu, the study's lead author told The Guardian earlier this week. "Pet owners should be aware that their dogs can get infected by something they eat off the ground."

The study found that 39% of the parks in Staten Island, 33% of the parks in Queens, 31% of the parks in Brooklyn and 30% of the parks in Manhattan tested positive for the parasite in the soil. 

Most of the Toxocara eggs that were found came from a species said to be specific to cats, not dogs. 

"I think their finding of Toxocara is both important and unsurprising," Thomas Nutman, chief of the laboratory of parasitic diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told The Guardian. "It’s really important for us to understand that these neglected tropical diseases, Toxocara being one of them, are still a huge problem the extent of which we don’t yet know, because we really haven’t looked."

The worm's eggs have also been found across Europe, with researchers discovering examples in Germany and Spain.

Methods to get rid of Toxocara eggs include raising awareness, deworming pets, and preventing stray animals from entering areas where children play. Tyungu also told The Guardian that it is crucial for children to wash their hands with soap and water after playing outside, especially before handling food or eating, and noting that antibacterial sanitizers do not remove the eggs.