Thursday, August 15, 2002

Andrew's August Health Watch, Brought to You by Shopperz Drug Mart

A few things of note have come to my attention over the past 24 hours, and they're freaking me out a bit (not in that "I can't sleep because of this" or the "Please, someone exorcise these demons!" kind of way, but still). There're these *things* just floating around out there, ready to make you feel crappy. Can't see 'em, can't really do much to prevent them from getting you, and they all happen when you're doing something fun. But anyway, for the sake of public health and your well-being, here's the goods...

Swimmer's Itch

We were watching the news last night when we heard about this one, and it's pretty sick-ass. See, there are these flatworms that swim around in lakes, rivers, and marshy areas in Ontario and other provinces and the northern United States. Every year at a certain time of year, they reproduce and their larva are also swimming around in there. Now, normally, these larva get all parasitic-like on birds and snails, but every once in a while, they come across a juicy human swimming around and they decide to burrow themselves into the poor sucker's skin. Okay, and after it gets up in there, it goes and dies on you. The result: these painful, itchy, raised, red sores all over your body where they bored into your skin which show up about 30 minutes later, expand steadily over the next day, and will itch for a week or more. Wanna see some pictures? I didn't, but I had to look at them anyway.

It's pretty sick and, I would assume, pretty annoying, but it's not life-threatening or anything. Which is just as well, because most people don't know about it, and there isn't much you can do about it. The larva are microscopic, so you can't really tell if they're there, and they can happen at all kinds of different times during the summer, although outbreaks are more common in May and June. If you're thinking of taking an outdoor swim, try to find out if there have been reports in your area and look out for signs that say swimmer's itch is around (although I would expect that most places wouldn't post warnings as most people are inherently lazy and irresponsible). If there is an outbreak and you can't handle the heat and need the swim or else you're going to lose your mind and start throwing things, the best thing to do is limit the amount of time you spend in the water (to ten minutes or so at a time) and towel off really well and vigorously when you get out of the water.

Now before you start rushing up and down, proclaiming "I'm never swimming in a river and/or lake *ever* again!" and throwing your hands in the air and generally freaking out, the conditions have to be just right for you to get swimmer's itch. The wind has to be right, the water current *just* so, the time of day is important, and there have to be a ton of water birds or snails around, and individual sensitivity plays a factor, too. Swimmer's itch is usually reported by people with other kinds of dermatitis, but getting swimmer's itch can also make you more susceptible to further exposures.

It's been reported in Ottawa recently, for those of you who live here. It may be going around elsewhere too. Beats me. I'm not a doctor. Stop looking at me that way.

VG-1 Fungus

It turns out that there's this fungus on Vancouver Island that can kill you, or so the story goes. When Stacey and I were there this summer, there were signs at Cathedral Grove (which is just *stunning*...300-800 year old cedars and Douglas firs....the trees are indescribably big...go there, I highly recommend it) that said, and I paraphrase, "For the love of God, do NOT touch the trees! Don't do it!...Hey, I saw that! Come back here for your bath in disinfectant and fungicide!" Of course, following regular provincial government patterns of ineptitude, they only put the sign on one side of the road, and there were trails leading off on both sides. Stacey had to tell a poor mother who was taking a picture of her little girl on a tree stump that her daughter may have been infected by the fungus and she should go see the park rangers immediately, who proceeded to look like she was going to throw up and scream at the same time. We didn't see what happened to her, but last we saw, she was tearing through the trees with her daughter in her arms like those speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Poor lady.

The fungus can make you very sick and it can kill you (there have been 50 reported cases and 1 death as a direct result of exposure to the fungus in the last three years). Today, however, I found that just keeping your hands in your pockets isn't enough. It's preliminary findings right now, but one woman has apparently died in a Victoria hospital from an airborne version of the fungus...*shudder*. It's already shown up in porpoises (go figure), but this is the first human case of this strain of the fungus, known as cryptococcal neoformans or VG-1.

And what does it do? After it is breathed in, it causes a lung infection. After that, the fungus spreads from the lungs to other organs and then your body gets all messed up. Right now, this will only matter to the folks out in BC, as it's a tropical fungus and probably won't move eastward into the colder and drier parts of Canada. But it most definitely sucks, no doubt about it.

Smog + Exercise = Deadly

This one goes out to everyone in Toronto in particular. I haven't found a lot of research online yet (and I'm working on it), but Stacey told me yesterday that they've found that a vastly disproportionate number of bike couriers in Toronto are getting lung cancer. We're talking young, healthy, fit people in their twenties who are suddenly getting lung cancer. The only connection they can make is that because they're out there, inhaling exhaust and other fumes and exercising all day long, every day, that it's being caused by prolonged exposure to the smog.

The Canadian Cancer Society is going to be publishing a paper on this very thing later this year that will have more information, but regardless, you should be very careful when you're exercising outdoors when smog levels are high in the city. When you exercise, it opens up your lungs and makes you more susceptible to the toxins in the air, which in turn can cause disease in your lungs, asthma, and cancer. When I get some more information, I'll post what I can find, because as an urban-geography-knowing-kind-of-guy this really concerns me. There's no reason in the world why fit young people should be getting lung cancer like this. It's pretty sickening, especially in a time when cities and provincial governments (in Toronto in particular) are cutting back on public transportation funding and incentives, dismantling air pollution restrictions for transportation and industry, and reducing the amount of green space by building more and more tract housing. It's only going to get worse.


I like puppies. Thought I should end this on a positive note (which, if you ask my nine-year-old neighbour, James, should be "There's a snowman on the ship!" I'm not sure how this is positive, but that's all he could come up with when we asked him last night, so I guess I'll have to take him at his word. *shrug*)


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