Two children were left ‘screaming in pain’ after being stung by toxic caterpillars while playing in a park.
Caroline Berry and her two children Annie, two, and George, five, developed painful rashes after they came into contact with the caterpillars of oak processionary moths.
The children came in contact with the insects, which are covered in poisonous tiny hairs, on Tugmutton Common, near Bromley in south east London.
The local authority warned residents to watch out for the insects, but staff printed only a small sign with a glaring typing mistake which said the park is ‘NOT known to be infested’ instead of ‘NOW known to be infested’.
Caroline said: ‘Within minutes my son came to me, having fallen in the grass near the football goals and said his wrist hurt.
‘On inspection it looked like he may have been bitten or was getting a little prickly heat.
‘He asked if we could go home and I could see he was upset so I agreed.
‘As I was packing our bits away my two-year-old daughter came over to me saying her foot hurt. In the next minute I had two children screaming.
‘My son has been awfully affected, and I began vomiting on the evening of our encounter with the hairs and then developed the rash.
‘I can tell you it is like a thousand gnat bites and prickly heat all at the same time.
‘We are still suffering a week on, regardless of the steroids, creams and medicines given to us by our doctor. We’re told it could take as long as three weeks to clear up.’
Bromley Council has been aware of the issue since June 16 when a person was stung – more than a week before Caroline and her children went for a picnic in the park.
Two more incidents were reported to the council on June 17 and June 18 and one complaint.
The council says a 500m monitoring zone is being set up around the main affected woodland, also known as Farnborough Recreation Ground.
Meanwhile, infested trees have been painted with an orange band and a small A4 sign has been attached to the park railings.
But Caroline has slammed the council’s warnings as ‘insufficient’.
‘In a sign it says do not interfere with their nests but we didn’t even see a caterpillar and we’ve been really affected,’ she said.
‘I saw the trees with orange mark and one of them is actually inside the play park which is a smaller fenced area.
‘If I was a child I would think, “This could be our home tree, it’s got a bright orange mark, it could be a magic button or something.”
‘There is no signage to suggest that the orange marks show that the trees are infested or anything so my mission at the moment is to really raise awareness.’
The species, not native to the UK, was accidentally introduced around 15 years ago. The government has since been trying to stop the spread.
Their toxic hairs become airborne and irritate skin even without direct contact – often after settling on surfaces away from the insects.
Caroline added: ‘I am extremely concerned that there is a marked tree known to be infected in the play park and this could affect a lot of kids.
‘I’m desperate to make people aware of this. I will be making my own signs but I am unable to put them up myself as I cannot go back due to the risk of secondary reaction being more severe.’
Since being stung, the mum has taken to residents’ forum Nextdoor to spread her warning.
Councillor William Huntington-Thresher, Executive Councillor for Environment and Community Services said, ‘We are taking action on Tugmutton Common to remove the caterpillars and nest and will be monitoring the situation locally to this area.
‘It is important that dog walkers in particular, through to youngsters messing around having fun in general, remain extremely vigilant as this pest represents a potentially extremely serious health issue for anybody who comes into contact with it.
What you need to know about oak processionary moth caterpillars
The oak processionary moth was first identified in London in 2006 and has since spread to some surrounding counties.
The caterpillars and their nests contain hairs which can cause itchy rashes, eye and throat irritations, and should not be touched under any circumstances at any time. They can occasionally cause breathing difficulties in people and pets.
The greatest risk period is May to July when the caterpillars emerge and feed before pupating into adult moths.
Its caterpillars feed on oak leaves and can increase trees’ vulnerability to attack by other pests and diseases, making them less able to withstand adverse weather conditions such as drought and floods. A Government programme is in place to limit their spread from areas where they are present.
The pest is established in London and surrounding areas but the majority of the country is designated a ‘protected zone’, which means it is free from the pest.
The Forestry Commission, working in partnership with others, have an annual programme in place to tackle the pest, with an ongoing programme of surveillance, treatment and research.
Forestry commission operations manager Andrew Hall said: ‘At this time of year, many people are enjoying green spaces and it’s really important for the public to be aware of the risk of tree pests like Oak Processionary Moth and to report any sightings via our TreeAlert website or by calling the Forestry Commission. This will help us with our programme of treatment and enables us to slow the spread of this pest.’
How to identify the caterpillars
Nests are typically dome or teardrop-shaped, averaging the size of a tennis ball. They are white when fresh, but soon become discoloured and brown.
The caterpillars have black heads and bodies covered in long white hairs which contain proteins which can cause itchy rashes, eye, and throat irritations.
‘It is not only a health hazard to humans but also threatens loved pets as the hairs of the caterpillars are toxic and so should not be touched under any circumstances. Please report concerns if you come across them.’
Residents are strongly advised not to touch the caterpillars or interfere with their nests, as the microscopic hairs from the caterpillars contain a toxin known to cause itchy skin rashes, itchy eyes and a sore throat. They may occasionally cause breathing problems.
If individuals suspect that they have been exposed to the caterpillar’s hairs and have these symptoms, they should contact their GP or NHS Direct, advising them of the potential contact they have had.
Animals such as dogs can also be affected and dog walkers are advised to be vigilant when exercising their dogs in woodland settings.
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