Smitten at home: when pets give you deadly infections

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A dog may be a man's best friend, but not his children's, doctors warn, while cats can be positively enemies.

A couple in Thu Duc District in Ho Chi Minh City almost saw their five-year-old son go blind after Quang Minh suffered from toxocariasis or visceral larva migrans (VLM) caused by roundworms found in the intestines of dogs (and cats).

Minh's father Hung loves dogs and his son has been eating and sleeping with the animals since he started crawling.

One day he developed flu-like symptoms, and his eyes became bruised and swollen until he completely lost vision.

Doctors gave him oral antibiotics and injected another directly into his eyes. They said if the child had been brought even a bit later, they would have had to remove his eyes to save the brain from being infected.

Failure to treat the condition within 72 hours can kill the person as the brain would be damaged, they said.

Dr. Tran Phu Manh Sieu, director of the Ho Chi Minh City Preventive Health Center, said no matter how loyal or smart pet dogs are, too much intimacy is not recommended.

Children caressing dogs regularly can go blind by getting roundworm larvae from their hair, he said.

The larvae can grow in the human brain, liver, and other organs, but in children they can get into the retina and gradually shut it down.

Dogs also host lung flukes that come out through their saliva and feces, doctors said, adding then there is the threat of rabies as well.

Figures from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development show that rabies killed an average of 200 people in Vietnam every year between 1991 and 2007. The numbers have come down lately to 110 in 2011 and 77 in the first 10 months of last year.

Fatal feline

Thao Suong lived in HCMC's District 4 with more than five cats at a time, shared her dining table and bed with them.

This arrangement continued until she lost her first child in the 12th week of pregnancy after having stomach aches and severe bleeding.

Doctors at Tu Du, the city's leading obstetrics hospital, said the miscarriage was caused by Toxoplasma gondii, a parasitic organism that can sexually reproduce only in cats.

Dr. Sieu said Suong must have been infected with the organism and passed it on to her child.

One cat can discharge a hundred million Toxoplasma gondii a day through their feces and people can be infected by ingesting an egg after caressing an animal or taking out its waste, he said.

The parasites form cocoons in the eyes, heart, and lungs, causing retinitis, cysts in the cardiac muscles, and interstitial lung disease that involves damage to the lungs' support framework.

Studies have found that the parasite is virtually harmless to adults, especially those with a robust immune system, but serious infections due to high parasitic loads can be caused in children who are more prone to exposure and ingestion of the eggs.

Infections can be fatal to pregnant women or HIV patients with weakened immune systems since the parasites can penetrate their brain, causing encephalitis (brain inflammation).

Cats can cause ringworm, a fungal skin disease. They also carry typhoid bacteria salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus that are responsible for atopic dermatitis, an inflammatory itchy skin disorder, lung abscess caused by the death of pulmonary tissue and formation of cavities, and blood poisoning that can be fatal.

In many cases people do not realize what their loved pets can bring them.

The US media reported in January that a 48-year-old woman in Texas had to have both her legs amputated at the knee and most of her fingers after her dog bit and scratched her. Robin Sullins became critical two days after being bitten as she tried to stop a squabble between family dogs on Christmas. She was put on life support with a respirator, dialysis, and feeding tubes.

Dr. Kristin Mondy, an infectious disease specialist, told My that the woman had "unusual bacteria," later identified as belonging to the capnocytophaga species present in the saliva of a third of cats and dogs, but which rarely sickens humans.

Sieu said people need to put up some boundaries in their interaction with pets, and must wash hands with soap afterwards.

Women should not raise dogs or cats if they are expecting a pregnancy or a baby, and need to get examinations done to make sure they are not infected if they plan to become pregnant, he said.

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