Precautions Against Diseases
Diseases of wildlife can cause significant illness and death to individual animals and can significantly affect wildlife populations. Wildlife species can also serve as natural hosts for certain diseases that affect humans (zoonoses). The disease agents or parasites that cause these zoonotic diseases can be contracted from wildlife directly by bites or contamination, or indirectly through the bite of arthropod vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and mites that have previously fed on an infected animal. These zoonotic diseases are primarily diseases acquired within a specific locality, and secondarily, diseases of occupation and avocation. Biologists, field assistants, hunters, and other individuals who work directly with wildlife have an increased risk of acquiring these diseases directly from animal hosts or their ectoparasites. Plague, tularemia, and leptospirosis have been acquired in the handling and skinning of rodents, rabbits, and carnivores. Humans have usually acquired diseases like Colorado tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Lyme disease because they have spent time in optimal habitats of disease vectors and hosts. Therefore, some general precautions should be taken to reduce risks of exposure and prevent infection.
Use extreme caution when approaching or handling a wild animal that looks sick or abnormal to guard against those diseases contracted directly from wildlife. Procedures for basic personal hygiene and cleanliness of equipment are important for any activity but become a matter of major health concern when handling animals or their products that could be infected with disease agents. Some of the important precautions are:
- Wear protective clothing, particularly disposable rubber or plastic gloves, when dissecting or skinning wild animals.
- Scrub the work area, knives, other tools, and reusable gloves with soap or detergent followed by disinfection with diluted household bleach.
- Avoid eating and drinking while handling or skinning animals and wash hands thoroughly when finished.
- Safely dispose of carcasses and tissues as well as any contaminated disposable items like plastic gloves.
- Cook meat from wild game thoroughly before eating.
- Contact a physician if you become sick following exposure to a wild animal or its ectoparasites. Inform the physician of your possible exposure to a zoonotic disease.
Precautions against acquiring fungal diseases, especially histoplasmosis, should be taken when working in high-risk sites that contain contaminated soil or accumulations of animal feces; for example, under large bird roosts or in buildings or caves containing bat colonies. Wear protective masks to reduce or prevent the inhalation of fungal spores.
Protection from vector-borne diseases in high-risk areas involves personal measures such as using mosquito or tick repellents, wearing special clothing, or simply tucking pant cuffs into socks to increase the chance of finding crawling ticks before they attach. Additional preventive methods include checking your clothing and body and your pets for ticks and removing the ticks promptly after returning from infested sites. If possible, avoid tick-infested areas or locations with intense mosquito activity during the transmission season. Reduce outdoor exposure to mosquitoes especially in early evening hours to diminish the risk of infection with mosquito-borne diseases. For more information about vector-borne diseases please visit, Purdue University’s Public Health and Medical Entomology website.
Equally important preventive measures are knowledge of the diseases present in the general area and the specific habitats and times of year that present the greatest risk of exposure. Knowledge of and recognition of the early symptoms of the diseases and the conditions of exposure are essential in preventing severe illness. Also important are medical evaluation and treatment with proper antibiotics. For example, if you become ill following some field activity in a known plague-endemic area and you recognize the early symptoms of the disease, seeking medical care and informing the attending physician of your possible exposure to plague will aid in the correct treatment of your illness and reduce the risk of complications or even death.
In addition to taking personal precautions, risk of acquiring vector-borne diseases can be reduced in specific locations through area-wide applications of insecticides to control mosquito or flea vectors or acaricides to control tick vectors. Reduction in host populations (for example, rodents) and their ectoparasites (fleas or ticks) may be needed to control transmission of such diseases as plague or Lyme disease. Vaccination of wildlife hosts as a means of reducing zoonotic diseases is currently being investigated and may soon be available for diseases like rabies.
Wildlife workers tend to ignore the risks associated with handling wildlife species and working in natural environments. Diseases of wildlife or diseases present in their habitats can infect humans and some can cause serious illness or even death. Becoming aware of the potential diseases present and taking precautions to decrease exposure will greatly reduce chances of becoming infected with one of these diseases. This section provides a description of the major zoonotic diseases of wildlife in the United States that can also infect humans and gives information on disease prevention.
You can prevent infection with zoonotic diseases and reduce the seriousness of an illness by observing the following recommendations:
- Become aware of which zoonotic diseases are present in your area and their clinical symptoms.
- Obtain any preexposure vaccinations that are available, particularly for rabies.
- Take personal precautions to reduce exposure to disease agents and vectors such as ticks, mosquitoes, and fleas.
- Practice good sanitation procedures when handling or processing animals or their products.
- If you become ill, promptly seek proper medical treatment and inform the physician about possible exposures.