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Dis Aquat Organ. 2008 Aug 19;81(1):81-92. doi: 10.3354/dao01942.

Health risks for marine mammal workers.

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Wildlife Health Center, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, California 95616, USA.


Marine mammals can be infected with zoonotic pathogens and show clinical signs of disease, or be asymptomatic carriers of such disease agents. While isolated cases of human disease from contact with marine mammals have been reported, no evaluation of the risks associated with marine mammal work has been attempted. Therefore, we designed a survey to estimate the risk of work-related injuries and illnesses in marine mammal workers and volunteers. The 17-question survey asked respondents to describe their contact with marine mammals, injuries sustained, and/or illnesses acquired during their period of marine mammal exposure. Most respondents, 88% (423/483), were researchers and rehabilitators. Of all respondents, 50% (243/483) reported suffering an injury caused by a marine mammal, and 23% (110/483) reported having a skin rash or reaction. Marine mammal work-related illnesses commonly reported included: 'seal finger' (Mycoplasma spp. or Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae), conjunctivitis, viral dermatitis, bacterial dermatitis, and non-specific contact dermatitis. Although specific diagnoses could not be confirmed by a physician through this study, severe illnesses were reported and included tuberculosis, leptospirosis, brucellosis, and serious sequelae to seal finger. Risk factors associated with increased odds of injury and illness included prolonged and frequent exposure to marine mammals; direct contact with live marine mammals; and contact with tissue, blood, and excretions. Diagnosis of zoonotic disease was often aided by veterinarians; therefore, workers at risk should be encouraged to consult with a marine mammal veterinarian as well as a physician, especially if obtaining a definitive diagnosis for an illness becomes problematic.

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