Most people know that there are microscopic organisms in backcountry water that can make you sick. But how prevalent are these organisms?
Many people have tolerances to certain types of organisms in water and thus think that they don’t need to treat any of their water! However, there are many protozoa, bacteria and viruses that can cause severe illness.
Here are a few of the most common and threatening organisms, advised by Ray Brooks.
Protozoa are the most common disease causing organisms in backcountry water. They are also the largest and easiest to remove with microfiltration. However, they are the hardest to kill with chemicals.
Cryptosporidium. Cryptosporidium is a type of protozoa that is found in 97 percent of the rivers and lakes found the in the United States. In 1991, two studies found cryptosporidium present in 65 - 87 percent of U.S. surface water samples.
Giardia. Giardia is just as common as cryptosporidium in backcountry water. It’s estimated that 2- 5 percent of people have giardia at a given time in the U.S. In fact, from 1979 - 1988, an estimated 4,600 people were hospitalized per year as a result of giardia. The CDC reports during 1991 - 2000 show that giardia was a cause of 16.2 percent of reported infectious outbreaks spread through drinking water.
If you become infected with giardia or cryptosporidium symptoms can be very intense. They include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramping, weight loss, fever and vomiting.
The hard part about identifying protozoan infections is that they typically have a long incubation period. It typically takes 5 - 28 days before symptoms appear. Until 2005, people had to let these infections run its course. However, now a drug called Alinia can help.
Bacteria that is found in backcountry water that affects humans, is the same type of bacteria that is found in improperly processed meat. The method of transmission is the same - through traces of feces contamination.
Campylobacter jejuni. This is one one of the most common bacteria in backcountry water. C. jejuni can survive in high-altitudes. It can also survive in surface water for months at a time. C. jejuni can be carried by poultry, horses, cows, waterfowl, rodents, deer, elk and bears.
C. jejuni affects an estimated 1 million people every year. Symptoms include diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever. Symptoms usually arrive within 2 - 5 days of ingestion. Illness usually lasts a week.
E. coli. E. coli actually consists of four classes. These four classes cause gastroenteritis in humans. Symptoms include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, low-grade fever, nausea and malaise. E. coli is usually found in the intestines.
Salmonella typhi. People affected by salmonella typhi know it by its common name - Typhoid Fever. There are about 400 cases reported in the U.S. each year and the majority of these cases originated from international travel. Typhoid fever can be life-threatening and it’s recommended that you get an immunization shot or booster before traveling internationally.
Cholera. Cholera is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. The infection causes severe vomiting, leg cramping, water diarrhea and a rapid loss of body fluids. Without treatment, cholera can cause death within hours.
Bacteria can be removed from water through Katadyn, MSR filters and purification tablets.
Viruses in water have only one source - human feces from infected carriers. The majority of outbreaks occur due to cross contamination. Outbreaks have also occurred from well or river water contaminated with raw sewage.
Enteric adenovirus & astroviruses. Enteric adenovirus is the most common virus found in water. It can cause respiratory problems but can also cause illnesses such as gastroenteritis, conjunctivitis, cystitis and rash illness. Enteric adenovirus causes 5 - 20 percent of the gastroenteritis in young children.
Norovirus and the calcivirus group. Noroviruses symptoms include headaches, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms usually appear within 48 hours. Norovirus can survive in up to 10 ppm chlorine - well above the levels used in public water systems. You can, however, treat norovirus with chlorine dioxide at 1 ppm in 30 minutes.
Rotavirus. One of the hard things about rotavirus is that it has an incubation period of 2 days. Symptoms include vomiting and watery diarrhea for 3 - 8 days. They are usually accompanied by fever and abdominal pain. Children are particularly affected by rotavirus and account for the hospitalization of 55,000 children in the U.S. each year.
Hepatitis A. Hepatitis A can be very prevalent in water outside the U.S.. However, it can be present in backcountry water in our borders. Hepatitis A affects liver functions and can cause long-term problems. It’s recommended that you get an immunizations shot for international travel.
Enteroviruses. This family of viruses includes 62 separate viruses that can infect humans. Most of the viruses cause cold- or flu-like symptoms. However, some of them can cause Polio, aseptic meningitis and more.
Blue-green algae. Also known as Cyanobacteria, this algae can affect water’s color and smell. You should try and avoid cyanobacteria water, however, if you’re forced to use that water, try and filter water where the algae doesn’t seem to be as thick. Be sure to run the water through activated charcoal. Microfilters will remove the majority of the toxins.
Contaminated water. You’ve probably seen pools that have a skull-and-cross-bones sign in front of them. These pools are usually contaminated with metal deposits or chemicals. While activated charcoal will remove many organic chemicals, it probably won’t remove metals, salts, or carbonates.