Interesting discussion over at The Spandrel Shop and Cackle of Rad on doing field work in the sciences–and the potential dangers that might be encountered. Now, Prof-like Substance and Cackle of Rad are discussing field work along the lines of biological sample collection, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, which isn’t something I’ve ever done. However, we have our own issues when carrying out our epidemiological field sampling; more after the jump.
For new readers, my lab works on emerging infectious diseases, and zoonotic diseases (which can pass between animals and humans) in particular. As such, we spend a lot of time around animals and out field sampling–mostly on farms, but we’ve also done some work looking at bacteria in wildlife.
While PLS reports carrying a gun (!), for our work, typically we go out armed with little more than questionnaires, cotton swabs, and a cooler.* However, we also don’t go out solo wandering through the wilderness (though driving through rural Iowa on twisting gravel roads sometimes seems equivalent). Our risks are much different. When we sample people, there’s always a (small) risk of acquiring some kind of illness from them if we’re not careful. As such, we always wear gloves when sampling, just to be on the safe side.
Working with animals is a lot more difficult than human field work. On some of the farms, we get a great cardio workout (Rule #1), catching and lifting pigs for swabbing. (And while you may think a 12-week-old pig sounds cute and adorable, try catching and holding one of those, with the realization that it’s approximately the weight and strength of a year-old pit bull, just without the jaw power). There’s always the danger of being scratched or even bitten by a pig, which can be really nasty. Luckily, to date no one in my group has been bitten (to my knowledge…) and scratches have all been fine with a thorough cleaning and antibiotic ointment as a precaution.
I also worry about my students catching something from inside the barns. One study previously showed that veterinary students out sampling did, indeed, become colonized with MRSA, but that colonization was short-term. My students typically don’t spend a lot of time inside the confinement barns so hopefully, even if we’re dealing with positive farms, our short time there won’t present much risk, but one student will be in barns for an extended period of time when his study ramps up here shortly. He wears both a suit and a mask to protect himself (as well as protect the pigs from anything he may be bringing in). Is a mask enough to protect him? Don’t know, but right now it’s the best combination of protection + practicality we have.
We’ve also done some cattle studies; it’s been awhile, but we have more coming up soon. Obviously the little guys (like here) aren’t all too dangerous, but sticking swabs up the nether regions of an adult animal is somewhat nerve-wracking–I don’t want to lose any teeth to a hoof. Next up will be turkeys–who also aren’t exactly tiny and docile. (Think about the size of your Thanksgiving turkey–the big ones, Tom turkeys–but with feathers, a beak, and claws, and not exactly happy to see hands and a swab coming at it).
Now, I come from a rural farming area and grew up downwind of a pig farm, so it still feels a bit weird to me to don gloves and sterilized booties to go traipsing around a farm, and as PlS and CoR note, we’re probably more inclined to take risks when it’s just ourselves than when others are with us. These are my students, and some of them can be pretty green (as in, never seen these animals anywhere but on their plates before we head out on the farms), so it’s my responsibility to do what I can to protect them (even if the farm owner, in their coveralls and boots, looks at us like we’re nuts, as they often do).
*Our lab work certainly carries its own dangers, but at least they tend to be a bit more predictable than our field work.