Spring brings outdoor activities, health hazards

Spring is here and people are heading outdoors to enjoy the balmy weather. But harmless activities such as taking a walk through the woods or cleaning out the attic could put a person at risk for some pretty serious medical issues if they are not cautious.

A walk in the woods exposes a hiker to ticks, which can carry both Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis, while dust stirred up from a spring cleaning chore can contain dried rodent droppings that can cause hantavirus in humans.

Photos.com When hiking in the woods, protect yourself from possible tick bites by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
When hiking in the woods, protect yourself from possible tick bites by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants.

These diseases are prevalent in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, but are preventable with some simple precautions.

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria, while tick-borne encephalitis is caused by a virus, both of which can be transmitted when the tick bites a host.

The earliest symptom of Lyme disease may include a rash that looks like a bullseye at the site of the tick bite, and can progress to flu-like symptoms including muscle soreness, headache, fever and malaise. Early treatment with antibiotics can usually cure the disease, but left untreated, it can cause persistent chronic problems and physical disability.

Although considered as a reportable disease in U.S Army medicine, not all European countries enforce mandatory reporting of Lyme disease cases and therefore, exact infection rate may be difficult to determine. For example, in Germany, Lyme disease cases are only reportable in certain states.

Tick-borne encephalitis can affect the central nervous system and causes symptoms similar to Lyme disease — headache, fatigue and muscle pain. In the event the virus does affect the central nervous system, paralysis can occur and hospitalization might be required.

In the case of tick-borne diseases, the best offense is a good defense.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends minimizing areas of exposed skin by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, boots, and hats. Tucking in shirts, tucking pants into socks, and wearing closed shoes instead of sandals may also reduce risk. Repellents, such as those that contain DEET, can be applied to exposed skin and clothing. Gear can be treated with permethrin for added protection.

Check yourself, your loved ones and pets for ticks after a trek through the outdoors. If you have been bitten, remove the tick carefully as soon as it is discovered by using a pair a tweezers to remove it as close to the skin as possible. Avoid squeezing the tick or removing the head while removing the tick.

An effective vaccine for tick-borne encephalitis is available as a series of three shots given over a period of approximately nine to 12 months. The makers of the vaccine have not sought U.S. licensure, so it is not available at military treatment facilities. However, TRICARE beneficiaries with at least nine months remaining in Germany may obtain the vaccine from a host nation facility with a prescription from their primary care manager. Beneficiaries in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg with outdoor occupations or hobbies are particularly encouraged to talk to their primary care manager about the vaccine.

Hantavirus is carried by rodents – the Red Bank Vole in Germany – and is usually spread through contact with its urine and excrement. In most cases, people are infected when they stir up dust in areas that are frequented by the rodents and breathe in the dried particles of those droppings.

Patients infected with the strain of hantavirus common to Germany may suffer from the abrupt onset of fever and flu-like symptoms, followed by abdominal pain and, in some severe cases, kidney failure. In 2012 nearly 2,800 cases of hantavirus infection were reported across Germany, with the majority reported in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.

Preventing hantavirus begins with keeping rodents away from the home, garage or campsite. Cleaning up spilled food to avoid attracting rodents and sealing holes that could allow them into your house or garage are a good start. When spring cleaning in areas that are dusty, such as attics, garages and basements, wet down or wet mop the area first to avoid disturbing any dust that contain dried rodent droppings, and wear a filter mask to avoid breathing in any particles while cleaning.

Experts expect the rodent and tick populations may be active sooner at a higher number this year because of the mild winter conditions experience in parts of Europe.