In Depth

How dangerous are pigeon droppings?

Review of flagship Scottish hospital launched following death of child patient from infection linked to bird excrement

A full and independent review has been ordered into a flagship hospital in Glasgow after it was confirmed that a child patient’s death was linked to a fungal infection caused by exposure to pigeon droppings.

Announcing the probe, Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said that both the child and an elderly patient at the £842m Queen Elizabeth Hospital had died after contracting the infection, reports The Scotsman.

Freeman told the Scottish Parliament that the adult patient had died from an unrelated cause, but that the bacteria had been a “contributing factor” in the death of the child, in December.

A 12th-floor room that is not used by the public “was identified as a likely source and the droppings were removed”, says The Independent. Control measures have been put in place, although it is still unclear how the bacteria entered the ventilation system.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said medication to prevent potential infection had been administered to a small number of vulnerable patients at the hospital, which opened less than four years ago.

How dangerous are pigeon droppings?

Pigeon droppings contain a fungus called Cryptococcus that can cause infections in vulnerable people if inhaled.

The child who died at the Glasgow hospital had been exposed to the fungus. Most people will not become unwell as a result, but vulnerable people with already weakened immunity “can get very ill with a chest infection or meningitis”, reports the BBC.

Infectious diseases expert Professor Hugh Pennington told the broadcaster it is very unusual to see cases in the UK.

“It is common in other parts of the world, particularly tropical parts, in the US and countries like that where they have more problems with this particular kind of fungus. But in the UK, very uncommon,” he said. 

“There are cases in people who have problems with their immune systems. They’re the people who are at risk with this kind of bug.”

Are there any other risks?

Breathing dust or water droplets containing contaminated bird droppings can lead to several other diseases including psittacosis and salmonella.

Psittacosis is a rare infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Chlamydia psittaci. Symptoms “are commonly a flu-like illness and pneumonia, usually appearing five to 19 days after exposure”, says the Health and Safety Executive. Salmonella - a bacterial infection that can cause diarrhoea - may also be present in some bird droppings.

Washing your hands after cleaning up bird droppings is strongly advised, and “if you have a compromised immune system, including from HIV/Aids or cancer, you should not clean up droppings”, adds the BBC.

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