PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERNS
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-in-fested 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. 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.