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A fascinating look at subterranean infectious diseases

I went spelunking once; I didn't really enjoy it. To be fair, I understand why people do enjoy caving: Underground landscapes are often stunning (as you can see above) and they can be very rewarding to traverse. On the other hand, when I last went caving, the experience felt much more like a long, chilly slog through wading pools of mud. And I think that was in an easy cave.

Now, as if I needed another reason to avoid the hobby, Wired Science takes an unnerving look at some obscure maladies that may be lurking in caves:

Like all sports that appeal to the extreme set, caving is risky. Beyond slips, falls and scrapes, spelunkers chance a host of rare, nasty diseases from cave critters, such as histoplasmosis, rabies, leptospirosis, and tick-borne relapsing fever.

The entry highlights a June 2011 paper by Ricardo Pereira Igreja, MD, PhD, in Wilderness and Enviornmental Medicine. The paper is quick to point out that most people aren't in immediate danger:

We should make a distinction between "sport cavers" (the term used by cavers for those exploring wild caves that are nearby and known) and "expedition cavers" (those who explore previously uncharted caves). Although the 2 million tourist visits are extremely low risk, smaller numbers of sport cavers are at risk for some high risk conditions, and expedition cavers are at risk for obscure infections.

But those so-called "sport cavers" may run the risk of encountering histoplasmosis, rabies, Marburg hemorrhagic fever (MHF) and other equally unpleasant conditions. Igreja, for example, writes of encounters with MHF:

. . .Three cases of MHF have occurred in travelers to caves harboring bats, including Kitum cave in Kenya and Python cave in Maramagambo Forest, Uganda.18 One Dutch tourist was reportedly exposed to fruit bats during a visit to the Python cave in Uganda. This cave is thought to harbor bat species that have been found to carry filoviruses in other locations in sub-Saharan Africa. A large bat population was seen in the cave and the victim was reported to have had direct contact with one bat. The cave in the Maramagambo Forest is known to be a tourist attraction.

Again, this is all very uncommon, but it certainly makes for some fascinating reading - and it might even provide me another excuse to pass on group caving expeditions.

Photo by clip works

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