New Brunswick

Blind woman warns of pigeon poop exposure danger

A young woman in Fredericton is singing on the street to call attention to the disease that made her blind.

A young woman in Fredericton is singing on the street to call attention to the disease that made her blind.

Erica Richards lost her sight last year after developing Cryptococcus meningitis.

Cryptococcus meningitis is a potentially fatal swelling of the membranes surrounding the brain. The disease is caused by fungus that lives in the guts of pigeons and other birds, such as chickens.

People can breathe it in if they're exposed to pigeon droppings.

The 24-year-old was living in a house that had a pile of pigeon feces in the attic, and she also had a compromised immune system from chemotherapy .

"A reverse migraine — I needed light, I needed sound. I needed neck massages. Couldn't lay down, couldn't sit up. Couldn't eat. I was vomiting. And then I started having double vision, quadruple vision, then seizures. And then I ended up in hospital," she said as she described her symptoms.

Richards sings to supplement her $135 a month disability payment.

Kevin Forward is an infectious disease specialist who teaches at Dalhousie Medical School in Halifax.

"I think it's pretty common sense. Move to avoid being in a situation where there are a lot of pigeon droppings, particularly if you're disturbing them, cleaning them up, sweeping them," Forward said.

"Those kind of situations should certainly be avoided. But if you're in the park that has some pigeons around, I think the risk is infinitely small."

Pigeons are part of the urban landscape, but they are known to carry a long list of disease-causing organisms — such as Chlamydia and salmonella.

That, along with complaints about them damaging roofs, led Fredericton to add pigeons to the city's animal control bylaw last year.

Property owners are now prohibited from spreading feed or anything else that would attract pigeons.

Richards wants to make sure people know the risk of coming into contact with pigeon feces.

"To draw attention, to raise awareness so people will ask questions, so they will know what the symptoms are," Richards said. "So that way, they can be warned ahead of time, before what happened to me happens to them."

Next month, she'll be going to a school sponsored by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to finish high school and to get matched with a seeing-eye dog.

She hopes to go on to study law.