OWS Protesters Could Face Zoonotic and Vector- borne Diseases

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Unclean conditions promote diseases. Photo by: David Shankbone

Zuccotti Park has not been cleaned or inspected since September 16, 2011, the day before thousands of Occupy Wall Street Protesters made the park their headquarters. The large numbers of people, discarded food, and trash attracts pests, such as rats, mice, and pigeons. Occupy Oakland, for example, has a rat problem already, and every New Yorker knows how many pigeons are around. Rodent and bird-transmitted disease can become a real problem in overcrowded areas, and bite wounds from rats and mice are also a health issue. The human waste that is reportedly being left by protesters is not only a general health risk, but also tends to attract pests that spread disease through bites and fecal matter.  Tim Mack,with Politico, interviewed Catherine Hughes, who lives one block from Zuccotti Park:

“They are defecating on our doorsteps. A lot of people are very frustrated. A lot of people are concerned about the safety of our kids.”

These piles of trash and other types of waste in the park create an attractive habitat for rats, mice, pigeons, and other animals that may carry zoonotic diseases. A zoonotic disease is any infectious disease that is transmitted to humans from animals.

Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome

Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome is a zoonotic disease that is found in rats and mice in North America. Humans can become infected via rat or mice bites, or by coming into contact with their urine or feces; either through direct contact or breathing in dust that has been contaminated. Hantavirus is severe, and has a 38 percent mortality rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Early symptoms of Hantavirus infection include fever and chills, headaches, muscle aches, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and abdominal pain. Within four to ten days after the initial symptoms, other symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath become present as the lungs fill with fluid. The CDC  reports that in the year 2010 only 21 cases were reported. The chances of protesters contracting the Hantavirus is rare, but since there are rats that carry the disease in New York, there is a small chance it could occur.

Histoplasmosis. Photo by: Yale Rosen

Histoplasmosis

Pigeons, as well as other birds may carry diseases that can make humans sick. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, their office receives many calls about pigeons and the health risks associated with these birds.  One of these health risks is histoplasmosis. Histoplasmosis is a respiratory disease caused by a fungus that grows in the pigeon’s droppings. The fungus grows in the soil where dropping have accumulated over many months. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, histoplasmosis can be found in attics, caves, barns and city parks. Breathing in fungus from the droppings can be enough to acquire this disease.

Symptoms of Histoplasmosis generally occur 10 days after you are infected. Not everyone who becomes infected will have symptoms, but if you are infected you may experience fever, fatigue, and chest pains. Histoplasmosis is not infectious, meaning that it cannot spread from person to person or from animal to person. Since histoplasmosis is not a reportable disease (unless there is an outbreak), there is no record on how many cases there are in the United States. The chances of protesters contracting histoplasmosis is small; however, the longer the park goes without cleaning, the more the bird droppings will pile up and the mold spores will have a chance to grow.

Vector-Borne Disease Risks at Occupy Protests

Another group of diseases that protesters may come into contact with are the vector-borne diseases. Vector-borne diseases are those diseases that can be transmitted to humans or animals by insects or arthropods.

Lyme Disease

EM rashes look like a bulls-eye. Photo by: James Gathany

Lyme disease is the most reported vector-borne disease in the United States, according to the CDC. Ninety-four percent of Lyme cases came from 12 states, one of which was New York. Lyme disease can be transmitted to humans via black-legged ticks. The black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick, lives in bushes and low-lying shrubs, and can travel from one area to another on dogs, cats and other animals as well as humans.  Symptoms of Lyme disease occur in stages, reports the CDC.  The first stage occurs within three to 30 days after a tick bite. These symptoms include fever, chills, headache, muscle and joint aches, swollen lymph nodes and a red, expanding rash called an erythema migrans. Erythema migrans(EM), look like a bulls-eye and can expand over several days. The rash may be warm to the touch, but rarely is it itchy.

The second phase of symptoms occurs if the person has not sought medical care. These symptoms include more EM rashes on the body, pain and swelling in the knees and other large joints, sharp pains, heart palpitations, and loss of muscle tone on one or both sides of the face, known as Bell’s palsy.

The late stages of symptoms occur after months or years from the tick bite. These symptoms may come and go and include arthritis, numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, and problems with short-term memory.

Protesters Can Prevent Diseases

Where rats go, disease follows. Photo by Matthieu Aubry

Preventing diseases like the Hantavirus requires protesters to clean their environment. Using appropriate restroom facilities, cleaning up trash, disposing of all waste properly, and storing food in air-tight, rodent-proof containers will help eliminate rats and mice from the area. Prevent histoplasmosis by taking precautions when cleaning. Wear gloves and masks when cleaning can help prevent inhalation of the fungus, for example.  Prevent vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease by frequently checking themselves and others for ticks and tick bites, and using an insect repellant with DEET.

Finally, when the protesters allow the park’s owners to thoroughly clean and inspect Zuccotti Park, they will go a long way towards preventing diseases and keeping protesters, and other residents, safe and healthy.

*In response to two emails that were received about this article and their concerns, the article has been updated to provide additional details, and a further explanation of these diseases and how they are contracted.

Resources:

Washington State University: “Rats and Mice.” Accessed October 20, 2011.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Signs & Symptoms for Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome.” Accessed October 20, 2011.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Signs and Symptoms of Lyme Disease.” August 15, 2011. Accessed on October 20, 2011.

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Facts about pigeon-related diseases” Accessed. October 20, 2011.

Tim Mak. “New Yorkers rage over ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protesters.” Politico. October 21, 2011.

University of Maryland Medical Center. “Histoplasmosis” Accessed November 1, 2011.

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© Copyright 2011 Janelle Vaesa, MPH, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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