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Animals and pets pose health hazards

It has long been known that infections can easily spread between animals and people. The scientific term for this phenomenon is zoonosis, or zoonotic diseases. In recent years, it’s been observed that zoonotic diseases are on the rise. In fact, about 60% of infectious diseases in humans are spread from animals. More worryingly, 75% of new and emerging infectious diseases in people originate from animals. Animal lovers should therefore be aware of the associated health hazards, and must take precautions to avoid zoonotic diseases.

We can’t completely avoid animals. Human interactions with domesticated animals and pets is enjoyable. Pets offer companionship and entertainment. Millions of households have some kind of animal pets, or they rear animals for farming reasons. Others will come into contact with animals in agricultural shows, zoos, animal orphanages, or whilst enjoying wildlife safaris. Still animals are an important source of human foods that include meats, diary, eggs and much more.

But animals harbor lots of harmful germs that include viruses, bacteria, fungi and other parasites. Some animals will appear healthy, even when they are laden with dangerous and lethal organisms. Germs can spread to you through direct contact with animals. This is especially so if you come into contact with the animal’s body fluids that include saliva, blood, mucus, urine or even feces. Also being in constant contact with where the animal lives poses a risk. This includes handling your pet’s food and water containers. Occasionally, germs will spread to you from unsafe animal foods like under-cooked meats or eggs, unpasteurized milk, or from raw fruits and vegetables contaminated with animal feces.

Anyone and everyone who interacts with animals is at risk. But young children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems are more at risk. Thankfully, there are things you can do to keep yourself and your family away from zoonotic diseases. Always wash your hands after being around animals, even if you didn’t touch any animal. Soap and water will do, or a hand sanitizer. Be safe with your pets, avoid exposure to their body fluids. Be especially careful and avoid animal bites and scratches. Minimize your time in animal enclosures, and handle their food and water containers safely. Make sure your pets and other animals are up to date with the recommended immunizations. Check with a vet if unsure. Only eat and drink safe animal products, which have gone through the recommended preparations for human consumption.

If you remain vigilant in your interactions with animals, you will get the best of both worlds. You will avoid zoonotic diseases, and may reap some health benefits. Observed health benefits of having a pet include decreased blood pressure, decreased loneliness, increased opportunities for socialization and exercise, lower stress levels and higher overall happiness. So don’t ditch your pets yet, just be careful.

Dr Alfred Murage is a Consultant Gynecologist and Fertility Specialist. amurage@mygyno.co.ke

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