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'The experience was torturous' - Mum warns of pet turtle health risks to infants


Oliver Gibson

Oliver Gibson

Oliver Gibson

The mother of an 11-week-old baby who was left fighting 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 mother of the first child in Ireland to be diagnosed with the disease, said her newborn son Oliver was hospitalised in December 2010 when he began struggling to breathe.

He was the first person in Ireland to be diagnosed with Type E Botulism originating from the two terrapins his parents kept.

"The experience was torturous to us," said Ms Gibson. "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.

"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."

Oliver is one of two Irish babies to have contracted the disease, which is linked to pet turtles. Both babies were 11 days old when they were rushed to hospital. The second case occurred in March, 2013.

Ms Gibson said she was shocked when the pets turned out to be the cause of her son's condition, and expressed concern that people think it is harmless to keep infants and turtles. "Infants and turtles don't mix. They can't be around each other and people need to realise that. The spores of the botulinum toxin are airborne and spread everywhere," she said.

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

Ms Gibson first realised there was something wrong when Oliver woke from a nap on Christmas Day in 2010 struggling to breathe and turning blue. He was rushed to the Rotunda Hospital and the decision was made to put him on life-support.

"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 any more and a neurologist was called in," said Ms Gibson.

"The whole situation felt desperate until a few days after he was brought in and started to do much better."

On New Year's Eve 2010 Oliver was moved from intensive care and on January 5 was allowed to go home.

"The evening we brought him home, the doctors called to tell us they had finally obtained a positive result from all the testing they had done on Oliver.

"It was a student, I think, who suggested that Oliver be tested for Type E Botulism."


Health officials visited the family's home and it was discovered the source of the toxin was in the water in the turtles' tank.

Ms Gibson said she is "forever grateful to the doctor who was astute enough to suggest testing for such a rare disease".

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

However, the infant had visited its grandmother and was held for a couple of hours by an uncle who keeps turtles.