More than 200 diseases are zoonotic or common to animals and humans. Veterinary staff members are continually exposed to animals that potentially carry infectious disease. This risk is an acceptable one as long as the risk is known, understood, and preventive measures are taken. These preventive measures are fairly straightforward and include:
WASH YOUR HANDS.
The single most important factor in preventing the transmission of infectious disease is hand washing (Fig 1). Wash hands frequently with warm, soapy water. Hand washing is especially important after handling not only the animal or its excrement, but also the animal’s food, bedding, or cage furniture. Wash hands even if gloves are worn.
Do not eat, drink, or smoke in animal areas.
Keep hands away from your eyes, mouth, and nose.
Infectious agents are commonly transmitted by inhalation, direct contact with cuts or mucus membranes, and ingestion (Fig 2).
Never chew on pens, pencils or needle caps.
Wear a different set of clothes on the job than those worn to commute to and from the workplace.
Some microbes can remain infectious for days, weeks, or even longer on inanimate objects like clothing (Fig 3).
Take precautions to avoid bites and scratches.
The saliva delivered through a bite wound may transmit zoonotic disease (Fig 4). Scratches basically inoculate an individual with whatever the animal has walked through–including feces. Report all on-the-job injuries to a supervisor immediately.
Minimize the creation of aerosols.
Frequent disinfection of animal areas is important, but try to minimize the creation of aerosols or droplets. Aerosols can be inhaled or get in the eyes thereby transmitting infectious agents. Manually remove bedding, food, and feces, then scrub heavily soiled areas with a disinfectant before hosing. Keep the use of high-pressure water hoses to a minimum and consider wearing protective gear while cleaning, such as masks, gloves (especially when working with open cuts or sores), and goggles or glasses. Adequate ventilation reduces the risk of inhaling infectious agents.
Who is most at risk?
Individuals with a weakened immune system are most at risk for contracting a zoonotic disease including:
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-positive individuals
- People on radiation, chemotherapy, or high doses of steroids
- Pregnant women and new mothers. All women of child-bearing years should be careful since infection during the first three months of pregnancy can be especially dangerous to the fetus.
- The very young and the very old also tend to have weakened immune systems, and there is rarely a good reason for these individuals to be in animal areas.
When should I seek help?
Everyone becomes ill at times, however individuals working with animals must be particularly aware of danger signs. Strongly consider seeking medical attention if you suffer from symptoms such as fever, chills, diarrhea and/or open sores. Be sure to inform your physician that you work with exotic animals.
When it comes to zoonoses, zero risk among veterinary staff is not expected or required. Each of us takes a chance of exposure, but we accept that risk voluntarily. Along with that risk, however, we must accept the responsibility of educating ourselves and taking the appropriate precautions.
CDC. Zoonotic disease: When humans and aniamls intersect. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/24-7/cdcfastfacts/zoonotic.html. Accessed March 25, 2011.
Johnson-Delaney CA. Reptile zoonoses and threats to public health. In: Mader DR (ed). Reptile Medicine and Surgery, 2nd ed. Saunders Elsevier; St. Louis: 2006. Pp. 1017-1030.
Reaser JK Clark EE Jr., Meyers NM. All creatures great and minute: a public policy primer for companion animal zoonoses. Zoonoses Public Health 55(8-10):385-401, 2008.