Saturday, March 29, 2008

Pneumonic Plague II

{Continuation from previous post}

So what killed Eric York, Grand Canyon National Park wildlife biologist, were aerosolized droplets of primary pneumonic plague that he breathed (through his unmasked mouth and nose) while doing a necropsy on an infected mountain lion. The photos he took while doing this -- with ungloved hands -- serve as sort of a morbid documentation of his infection, which resulted in his untimely death just days later. As I sat in a conference listening to the details, viewing the photos this week, I got squirmy. Oh to go back and warn him...

It has to hit home for anyone who works/ed in field wildlife biology, since they are at greater risk of contracting any of the three forms of plague in plague-endemic areas. I've been there, too. The warnings, the cautions, the Personal Protective Equipment (when they’re there) quickly get lost in the long hours, inclement weather, rough terrain, and blind determination necessary to accomplish field work. I think working with wildlife in the field draws a certain sort of person, too -- often with noble ideals and a strong conservation ethic. It sort of predisposes such folks to losing site of caution, even when it's most needed. It’s a little disconcerting to think back on the daily dangers and near-misses I (and so many others I knew) experienced in the field -- malfunctioning equipment, dangerous weather, whacko’s in the woods, to say nothing of the presence of bear and cougar while in these remote locations alone... Who has time to worry about zoonotic diseases?!

Individuals have to take responsibility for their own health precautions – that is true. But when you're exhausted and everything is going wrong (and in the field everything regularly goes wrong), it’s the path of least resistance to let your own safety slide in favor of accomplishing the work. It's especially true when education and awareness about protecting one’s self isn’t properly addressed (or addressed at all, perhaps) by one’s employer. Being encouraged to tuck a wild animal into my shirt to keep it warm while it crapped and bled all over me wasn't something I thought twice about at the time, given the circumstances. I guess we'll never know where Eric York stood on the continuum of exhaustion, things going wrong, and the slippery slope of relinquishing caution, or what role any of that played in his mind.

The preventability of York’s case during fall 2007 launched a shake-up in wildlife/field biology protocols. The National Park System is taking a comprehensive, honest look at what went wrong and already implementing preventative changes. They’re collaborating with CDC and others to update their training and education of both visitors and staff on zoonotic diseases, increasing surveillance of potential exposure incidents, and tracking “signs” of disease among park staff (absenteeism, tick exposures, ranger incident reports, etc… this is being bundled into a pilot project at Yellowstone National Park). I’m impressed that they have the fortitude to self-question why no “red flag” was raised when a field biologist called in to work sick just a few days after performing a necropsy on a mammal… in a plague-endemic area.

Ironically, York’s incredible dedication to his research – which included long, odd hours and a limited social life – turned out to be instrumental in curbing direct (primary) transmission of pneumonic plague to other humans at Grand Canyon National Park. While he never knew it, he probably saved a lot of lives. It was nice to hear the U.S. Public Health Service medical doctor honor him during the conference this week, while admitting "we got lucky" that no outbreak occurred. By all other accounts as well, it sounds like his passing is a recognized loss to international research for the study and protection of wild cats.

If you’d like to honor the life or passing of wildlife biologist Eric York, apparently you can donate to the Felidae Conservation Fund -- an organization with whom he collaborated on domestic and international research projects toward the protection of wild cats.

Felidae Conservation Fund
14 Cove Road
Belvedere, CA 94920

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