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For the week of July 4 through July 11, 2000

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Giardia, campylobacter do’s and don’ts

Express Staff Writer

Ah, summer—season of hiking, biking, camping, and, if you’re not careful, gut-wrenching waterborne sickness.

Almost anyone who’s a fan of the outdoors has heard of Giardia, the single-celled, misery-inducing microscopic organism that lives in water and the intestines of warm-blooded animals, including humans.

The sneaky little parasite can be picked up by swallowing its resting stage, the cyst, which is a sturdy little pod that exits in an animal’s body along with feces and then lives in water.

The cysts are incredibly durable, capable of surviving for years in streams, lakes and shallow wells—just waiting for a hapless warm-blooded host. Once ingested by the unwary, the pods sprout tentacles and suction cups with which they attach themselves to the intestinal lining, where they multiply and cause fever, nausea, abdominal cramping and diarrhea.

Ned Rosenthal, a science writer for the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute, got the bug on a moose hunting trip in 1998 and described it this way:

"The noises from my abdomen were so loud my dog barked at them."

The disease is sometimes called Beaver Fever, because of the beaver’s obvious association with water. But in fact, Giardia is spread by almost any warm-blooded creature, often free-ranging cattle.

Although dogs also are vulnerable to Giardia, Dr. Randy Acker, of the Sun Valley Animal Center, says that most canines that drink from streams in the Wood River Valley where they might ingest the parasite ultimately become immune to the disease.

Dr. Acker says he prescribes the medication flagyl (metronidazole) for a wide range of possible causes of common canine intestinal upsets, including Giardia.

A bacteria, also spread by cattle, causes another common waterborne disease in humans. According to the Massachusetts Department of Health, campylobacteriosis (caused by the campylobacter bacteria) is one of the most common gastrointestinal infections in the United States.

Humans pick up campylobacter in the same way they pick up Giardia—by drinking contaminated water—and the symptoms are practically identical. However, Giardiasis is capable of lasting for months or years if left untreated, whereas campylobacteriosis symptoms usually last from one to four days, according to the Massachusetts Department of Health.

Every year, the Wood River Medical Center treats at least a few cases of both diseases, Dr. Kathy Haisley, a WRMC emergency room physician, said during a telephone interview Thursday.

So far this summer, there have been no locally reported cases of Giardiasis, she said, but last week an unlucky group of geology students camping near Mackay, about 50 miles east of Sun Valley, came down with campy. Haisley said the more than a dozen infected students drank water from a well that may have been contaminated by grazing cattle.

"It’s good for people to know they should be careful," Haisley said, because we don’t have drinkable water in springs or rivers.

Dr. Leslie Tengelsen of the State Division of Health, expanded that list of potentially infected sources to lakes, shallow wells and even campsite faucets and showers.

During a telephone interview Friday, she said people should avoid brushing their teeth with water from campsite faucets and should be careful not to swallow water while taking showers at campsites, because, often, the water is pumped directly from streams or lakes.

Tengelsen said that other infectious bacteria, such as E. Coli and salmonella, live in untreated water.

So how does a thirsty camper get a drink in the midst of all this disease?

"The best thing is to filter or boil your water," Tengelsen said, while discouraging the use of iodine, a common disinfectant. Tengelsen said she lacked confidence in the quality of some of the iodine products on the market.

Of course boiling is probably the most inexpensive method of purifying water, time permitting, Tengelsen said. All it takes is a camp stove or fire and a metal container. And, according to Tengelsen, it will kill all micro-organisms in the water, including campylobacter and Giardia.

Iodine is also inexpensive. One brand sold at a local camping supply store claims to treat 25 quarts of water and costs $5.50. According to the label, the product is "proven effective against Giardia..." and "makes questionable water bacteriologically suitable to drink." The bottle the iodine tablets come in is light-weight and small—about the size of a wine bottle cork.

A major drawback with iodine, according to a group of forest service employees interviewed at the store, is the 30 minute wait required while the germicidal tablets do their work. Also, they said, the disinfected water has an unpleasant taste, which can be partially masked by mixing the water with Tang. And, according to the product’s label, it shouldn’t be used continuously, though the label doesn’t say why.

At a significantly higher price, water filtration systems offer all the purifying capabilities of iodine and boiling with a bonus. Some claim to remove not only odor and bad taste, but also industrial and agricultural pollutants such as heavy metals—like aluminum, mercury and lead—and synthetic organic chemicals and volatile organic chemicals.

Of course you pay for what you get. Prices for the filtration systems range from around $30 to around $200.

And most of the systems involve a complex arrangement of pumps, hoses, bottles and bits and pieces that can get lost or broken. During a back-country trip, that could spell disaster if the system is the only source of safe drinking water available.


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