Be on the lookout for mice, bats and ticks

Health Matters

Paul Martiquet / Health Columnist
May 16, 2014 11:49 AM

Most of us live in relative safety when it comes to the perils of nature.

We rarely worry about being attacked by wild elk or peregrine falcons. It is most unlikely we will face a bear (but don’t underestimate that one) or be attacked by an orca.

That said, there are certainly perils to watch for. Three that come to mind (and yes, we can come up with dozens, nay, hundreds) are: hantavirus (from deer mice); rabies (the saliva of infected animals); and Lyme disease (tick bites).

Fortunately, most of these are rare, or very rare, but a little prior knowledge can always help.

Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome is a potentially fatal disease transmitted by deer mouse urine, droppings or nesting materials. The most common way we are exposed is while cleaning cabins, barns or outbuildings. Sweeping disturbs infected materials into the air where it can be breathed in. If infected, the symptoms usually arise one to six weeks after exposure and resemble severe flu. They include fever, chills, body aches, abdominal pain, cough and difficulty breathing.

The best way to prevent exposure is to wet down the area that is being cleaned and when doing the work, wear rubber gloves, goggles and a filter mask.

Movies have made rabies famous (or infamous). Someone is bitten by a wild dog or bat and soon becomes disoriented, foams at the mouth, and chases others. Actually, that is partly true, though not the chasing bit. Rabies is a viral infection of animals that can be transmitted to humans and is caused by a virus of the Rhabdoviridae family. It attacks the central nervous system and eventually affects the brain. In B.C., the virus is found in the saliva of bats so it is important to avoid contact with them.

If infected, symptoms can take up to two months to appear (it can vary from days to years). The illness presents either as ‘dumb rabies’ (paralysis) or ‘furious rabies’ (like on TV) featuring confusion, agitation, delirium, rage, hallucinations and hydrophobia. In either case, death usually occurs within seven days due to breathing failure caused by paralysis of the respiratory system.

Vaccines are available either post-exposure or pre-exposure for people at high risk of contact including veterinarians, some lab workers, animal control or wildlife workers. Excellent preventative actions have made human rabies extremely rare in Canada.

Anyone venturing out into the wilds of nature (or the back yard in some cases) needs to be aware of the risk of tick bites because they could be carrying Lyme disease (caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi). The disease in humans can have serious symptoms but can be effectively treated. Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in much of North America.

A tick bite is almost always painless and people won’t even know they have been bitten unless they find one of the little pests attached to their skin. Checking yourself, your kids and even pets for ticks after hike is a very good idea.

The first sign of infection is usually an expanding rash which occurs in about three-quarters of infected people. This can be accompanied by fever, chills fatigue and headaches. If untreated, the disease can progress to second and third stages with increasingly serious effects, but is rarely fatal.

Being safe in the summer includes being careful around the water, being safe in the sun, and yes, knowing about Hantavirus, Lyme disease and rabies. But have fun!

Editor’s note: Dr. Paul Martiquet is the medical health officer for rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.


© Coast Reporter

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