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Rescuing Marine Animals Brings Disease Risk, CDC Says

A dead harbor porpoise that washed up in Maine in January turned out to be carrying a disease-causing bacteria that could have sickened the people who handled the animal, according to a report today (June 28) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The case serves as a reminder of the potential for infection when rescuing or handling marine mammals, and the importance of using proper protection to avoid exposure to diseases, the researchers said in their report.

The bacteria found in the porpoise, called Brucella, causes flu-like symptoms in people, including fever, sweats, headache, back pain and weakness, which can persist for years, according to the CDC. Sometimes, the bacteria cause severe infections of the brain, bone, heart, liver or spleen, the CDC says.

After the carcass of the porpoise was recovered on Jan. 29, a university faculty member, two students and a community volunteer performed an autopsy on the animal. Although the team members wore gloves, they did not wear any protection over their noses and mouths to prevent themselves from breathing in the bacteria. (Brucella can become airborne during an autopsy.)

Subsequent lab testing on samples from the porpoise revealed it was infected with Brucella.

Because the four people who performed the autopsy did not wear respiratory protection, they were considered at high risk for Brucella infection, and were required to take antibiotics for three weeks, check themselves daily for fevers, and undergo weekly blood tests performed by CDC personnel.

After 24 weeks, none of the individuals had become ill (signs of the disease can show up months after a person becomes infected).

"Persons who handle marine mammals should be educated on the potential for infection associated with their activities and the precautions necessary to avoid being exposed to infectious agents," the CDC researchers wrote. "Failure to use primary protection to avoid exposure necessitates using more costly and time-consuming secondary strategies."

Facilities that allow students and volunteers to participate in the rescue and handling of marine mammals should provide the same level of training and protection for this population as they do for their employees, the CDC said.

Brucella is not common in the United States, but is endemic in many parts of the world, according to the CDC. It is found in animals, including cattle, swine, goats and sheep. Between 2000 and 2009, an average of 113 cases of brucellosis a year, the disease caused by Brucella, were reported to the CDC.

The new report will be published tomorrow (June 29) in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Week's Report.

Pass it on:  Marine mammals can harbor infectious diseases, and people who rescue or handle them should use proper protection.

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