Austin toddler develops muscle tremors after possible blue-green algae exposure

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — When Leia Morris took her 3 year-old son, Linus, to the Bull Creek Preserve on Sunday, he was his normal, playful self, running through the trails and exploring the stream near Link Falls.

On Monday morning, he woke up trembling, as if he’d just had a nightmare. During breakfast, he couldn’t hold a glass of water without visibly shaking.

By the afternoon, she’d thought he was improving. But when he tried to run, he repeatedly fell down.

“When he woke up on Tuesday, once again I could see his muscles twitching — like I could visibly see that his fingers were twitchy,” she said.

When she went to a pediatric emergency room on Tuesday morning, she told doctors there she’d taken Linus to Bull Creek and that she suspected he had swallowed algae while playing in the water.

She said the doctors were skeptical at first. But after calling Poison Control and doing research into toxic blue-green algae side effects, they couldn’t find any other cause that more closely matched Linus’s symptoms.

“And then the science matched what the toxin causes — it causes tremors and muscle fasciculations, which are like the twitching, and ataxia, which is the incoordination,” she said. “[They] saw that lined up, and because we’ve had a potential exposure two days before and then a sudden onset of those symptoms, that was the diagnosis.”

Leia Morris’s son, Linus, has been experiencing muscle twitches and impaired mobility since visiting Bull Creek Preserve on Sunday. (Courtesy: Leia Morris)

Toxic blue-green algae has risen as an ongoing concern in some of Austin’s waterways, namely Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake. Since 2019, seven dogs have died as a result of ingesting or playing in water contaminated by the algae.

Historically, animals have exhibited the most severe symptoms to toxic blue-green algae, with Austin mitigation efforts centered around raising awareness among pet owners to help protect local dogs. However, guidance published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outline risks for humans, including:

  • Stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Skin, eyes, nose, throat irritation
  • Neurological symptoms, including muscle weakness and dizziness

Officials from the Austin Watershed Protection Department said they will be looking further into this report. Currently, the city of Austin monitors toxin levels at Lady Bird Lake as part of its toxic blue-green algae pilot program.

“Blue green algae may be present in any Central Texas water body. It is impossible to tell if toxins are present just by looking at the algae, so assume all algae may be toxic and avoid handling algae,” said Stephanie Lott, AWPD spokesperson, in a statement. “We encourage the public to call 3-1-1 or 512-974-2000 to report any illnesses in either people or pets from exposure to harmful algae.”

For now, Morris said the next few hours and days feel like a waiting game, filled with calls back and forth with different agencies and local physicians.

“I feel like these [toxic blue-green algae] signs should be updated to reflect the risk to children, and when they issue warnings about dogs they should also issue warnings about children at least, if not adults because it can affect adults as well.”

LEIA MORRIS

She said she is confident Linus will make a full recovery, but added the big question remaining is what his treatment will entail. He wasn’t prescribed any antibiotics or medication after his visit Tuesday, and she’s awaiting a call back from a pediatric neurologist on next steps.

“I’m not sure what that is going to look like from here,” she said. “I’m expecting that there will be antibiotics involved, but I don’t know if they’ll be oral antibiotics, or if he’ll have to go to the hospital and get IV antibiotics, or if he’ll have to have a spinal tap or they’ll just prescribe antibiotics without a test to confirm what this is. So I really don’t know.”

While Linus’s upcoming treatment measures have yet to be determined, Morris said she already knows what her next steps are: A visit to Austin City Council.

One of the common warnings surrounding toxic blue-green algae is avoiding stagnant waters. But with their hike taking them near Link Falls, she said she thought the running water reduced those concerns.

During her research the past few days, she found other states, including Utah, outlining potential risks toward children in their toxic blue-green algae messaging.

Children are especially vulnerable to cyanotoxins – minimize risk by avoiding primary contact (i.e. swimming or submerging your head) with all waters in Zion NP.

Zion National Park toxic cyanobacteria messaging

She said this needs to become synonymous with all algae messaging coming from the city moving forward.

“I feel like these [toxic blue-green algae] signs should be updated to reflect the risk to children, and when they issue warnings about dogs they should also issue warnings about children at least, if not adults because it can affect adults as well,” she said.

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