Wednesday 21 March 2018

'Infants and turtles just don’t mix' - mum of Ireland's first reported case of terrapin-related botulism

Oliver was hospitalised in December 2010 when he started struggling to breathe
Oliver was hospitalised in December 2010 when he started struggling to breathe
The Gibson family

David Kearns and Denise Calnan

The mother of an 11-week-old baby who fought for his life after contracting terrapin-related botulism said nobody knew what was happening at the time because 'no one had seen anything like it'.

Kris Edlund Gibson, the parent of the first child in Ireland to be diagnosed with the disease, said her newborn son Oliver was hospitalised in December 2010 when he started struggling to breathe.

“No one knew what was happening because no one had seen anything like it,” Kris Edlund Gibson told

Unknown at the time, the boy was the first case in Ireland to be diagnosed with Type E Botulism originating from the two pet terrapins his parents kept.

Oliver is one of two Irish babies who has contracted the disease, which is linked to pet turtles.

Both babies were just 11 days old when they were rushed to hospital with the disease.

The cases are the first of their kind in Ireland, it was reported yesterday.

The first case, which involved Baby Oliver, was recorded here in December 2010, and the second in March of 2013.

Oliver's mother described the experience as 'torturous' as her child was placed on life support two separate times.

“Mentally and emotionally, the experience was tortuous to us. It is impossible to put into words how painful it is to see one’s newborn in that state. It was equally as painful to have to walk away and leave him there night after night,” Kris said.

Oliver was hospitalised in December 2010 when he started struggling to breathe
Oliver was hospitalised in December 2010 when he started struggling to breathe

“I wanted to get rid of the turtles before Oliver was born because I thought they smelled awful and I was worried about salmonella.

“The only reason we ended up keeping them was because we couldn’t find anyone to take them. I didn’t want to just take them to a pond and dump them so we kept them.”

Read More: Two newborns rushed to hospital after contracting terrapin botulism

Kris said she was she was shocked when the pets turned out to be the root cause of her son’s condition, and expressed her concern that people still think its acceptable to keep infants and turtles.

“It isn’t a safety matter; infants and turtles just don’t mix. They can’t be around each other and people need to realise that. It isn’t enough to just ‘wash your hands’ or keep them apart, the spores of the botulinum toxin are airborne and spread everywhere.

“Our baby was never in the same room with the terrapins.  This is the warning parents need to take from this.”

Three years after Oliver's diagnosis, a second Irish baby contracted terrapin-related botulism, despite there being no turtles in the baby’s home. 

However, this infant visited its grandmother and, while there, was held for a couple of hours by an uncle who turtles. The spores are believed to have travelled on the uncle's clothing.

Attaching itself to the nerve endings from the neck down, Type E Botulism slowly shuts down the human body. Children under five lack the natural immunities to fight off the condition.

Kris first realised there was something wrong when Baby Oliver woke from a nap on Christmas Day in 2010 struggling to breath and turning blue in the face. He was rushed into Rotunda Hospital's emergency department and the decision was made to put him on life support.

Tests for meningitis were carried out and Oliver was put on a range of antibiotics. He remained floppy with no flexes and very little pupil dilation for days. He wasn't showing any muscle tone and, after being seen by a neurologist, was told that the problem was most likely neurological, muscular or metabolic.

However, an ECG test showed normal brain activity. Baby Oliver was transferred to Temple Street Children's Hospital where an MRI scan showed no abnormal activity. His parents believed the eleven-month-old child probably had a neuromuscular disorder.

“Honestly, we thought we were going home with a quadriplegic because that’s what the doctors told us. They called him 'a floppy baby' because he couldn’t breathe on his own anymore and a neurologist was called in as they said his problem was most likely neurological or muscular,” Kris said.

Preparing for the worst, Oliver’s parents were shocked when doctors announced he was recovering. “The whole situation felt completely desperate until a few days after he was bought in he started to do much better.”

“He was trying to open his eyes and seemed to respond physically to our touch. The doctors were amazed and couldn’t explain what had happened.

“It turned out it was the oxygen he was being given on life-support,” Kris said. “The botulism toxic couldn’t survive in an oxygen rich environment.

On New Year’s Eve, Oliver was moved from the intensive care unit and a few days afterwards, on January 5, he was allowed to go home.

“The evening we bought him home, the doctors called to tell us that they had finally obtained a positive result from all the testing they had done on Oliver. To everyone's surprise, his stool tested positive for type E Botulinum toxin.

“It was only when a bright spark, a student I think, suggested that Oliver be tested for it that they figured out what was wrong with him,” said his mum.

“As this was the first such case in Ireland, nobody really knew what to do right away.”

Public health officials visited the family's home and took a range of samples in a bid to find the source of the infection. It was discovered the source of the toxin was in the water of the turtles' tank. The turtles were put down, the room was stripped of carpet and disinfected.

Clinically, Oliver seemed fine.

He was breathing well and did not seem to be in any distress. However, two days later he showed all of the same terrifying symptoms all over again and was rushed to Temple Street hospital’s emergency department, where he was put on life support for a second time.

Now that Oliver was off the hospital's oxygen, the toxic spores he had inhaled were attacking his nerve endings again.

It was only when treatment was flown in from American at a cost of €35,000 that doctors were finally able to cure his condition.

Having made a complete recovery, Kris said she was “forever feel grateful to the doctor who was astute enough to suggest testing” for such a rare disease.

The botulism-causing toxin involved in both Irish cases was found in the tanks of both turtles.

As a result the HSE also solved one case in the UK, initially believed to have been caused by honey, and told the public health authorities the source of infection was likely to be the turtles in the UK family's home.

Symptoms of the infection begin with constipation, followed by lethargy, poor feeding, loss of head control, difficulty swallowing and weakness.

In the most severe cases breathing problems can develop, as well as paralysis.

Honey is considered the main botulism threat to infants, however turtles are also known to be a cause.

The HSE has advised owners to ensure they wash their hands thoroughly after handling and feeding turtles, as well as ensuring they remain in their tank and can’t roam freely around the house.

For more information on Infant Botulism, visit

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