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Two deaths from exposure to pigeon poop have Scotland on high alert

Korin Miller
Writer
Multiple deaths in recent weeks have been attributed to an exposure to pigeon poop in Scotland. Here’s why, (Photo: Getty Images/Abraham Blanco)

Two people have died at a hospital in Scotland after contracting a fungal infection that’s tied to pigeon poop. One of the patients was elderly and died of an unrelated cause, but the infection was a “contributing factor” in the death of a child who was also infected, Scotland’s health secretary Jeane Freeman told the BBC. It’s thought that the people contracted the infection after inhaling Cryptococcus, a fungus that’s usually found in soil and bird poop, The Guardian says.

Public health officials launched an investigation into the deaths and found that the likely source of the infection was a room that contained machinery and pigeon poop, and was not open to the public. The room has now been cleaned and control measures were added, including air filters and giving medication to patients who may be vulnerable to the disease.

People can get infected with Cryptococcus after breathing in the fungus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). After being infected, people can experience symptoms like a cough, shortness of breath, chest pain and fever, the CDC says. If the infection spreads from the lungs to the brain, someone may have a headache, fever, neck pain, nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light, and confusion or changes in behavior. And yes, people can die from this.

It’s pretty scary given how often people accidentally interact with bird poop, whether it’s sitting on a park bench or actually getting hit by it while you’re outside. But overall, this isn’t something the average person needs to stress over, William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The fungus can thrive and be in pigeon droppings but it usually has to be aerosolized in some way, and in a substantial way to cause people to become ill,” he says.

It’s also uncommon for the fungus to cause problems in people who are otherwise healthy, infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s a disease that primarily affects those with underlying medical conditions,” he says. “It’s classically described in patients with HIV and those who have had organ transplants. It’s not something that everyone gets sick and dies from.”

If someone has symptoms of a Cryptococcus infection, doctors will usually run blood tests or, if it appears to have spread to a person’s brain, they’ll test their spinal fluid, Adalja says. If they do, in fact, have the infection, they’ll be given prescription antifungal medication for at least six months and possibly longer, he says.

If you happen to come into contact with bird poop in the future, it’s best to wash your hands and the area that touched the droppings, and not stress over developing Cryptococcus in the future. “Cryptococcus is everywhere, but it’s not something the general population needs to worry about,” Adalja says.

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