Work on your soil safely without getting infected by harmful organism
BY ASSOC PROF DR TAN TOH LEONG
AND DR LIEW YEW KONG
Malaysia is blessed with a warm tropical climate. Lush greenery litters our country and those involved in farming activities or gardening as a hobby get to tend to their plants all year round.
A good soil is still the quintessential requisite to growing most plants. The soil provides plants with essential nutrients and structural support. But do you know we can get infected by harmful organisms if we do not handle the dirt and soil properly? Let me share with you some of the unseen dangers in our soil.
Commonly soil-transmitted parasites are Ascaris, hookworm and whipworm. People are infected with Ascaris and whipworm when eggs are ingested. This can happen when hands or fingers that have contaminated dirt are put in the mouth or by consuming vegetables and fruits that have not been carefully prepared.
Hookworm hatch in soil, releasing larvae that can penetrate the skin, especially when walking barefoot. These parasites multiply in our bodies and can cause malnutrition, diarrhoea, chronic illnesses like anaemia, and protein deficiency.
Tetanus, caused by the bacteria Clostridium tetani, is found globally. An exposed open wound allows tetanus spores in the soil to enter our body. We receive immunity against tetanus by vaccination.
However, individuals may be at risk of tetanus infection when their immunity against the bacteria has reduced. Tetanus causes persistent muscle spasms resulting in lockjaw, inability to swallow and unstable blood pressure. Death occurs in up to 30 per cent of those infected.
Melioidosis is a bacterial infection commonly found in communities involved in soil activities in Sabah, Sarawak, Kedah, Johor and Pahang. Those with poorer nutrition, hygiene and immunity are at risk.
Village children who habitually play with the soil may develop pus-forming cavities, also known as abscesses, that form in the skin or lymph glands. It can also attack the lungs, spleen and liver.
Those infected with melioidosis must receive antibiotics for at least three months. The infection can lead to severe sepsis and even death if left untreated or the patient gets treatment late.
With these potentially deadly infections, should we avoid soil work? Definitely not! Here are some good habits that can minimise our risk of infection:
Good hand hygiene
Do you know which is the dirtiest and most missed area of our hands after handwashing? The fingernails! If not cleaned properly, the black gunk embedded beneath our nails carries a rich source of harmful organisms that transmit to different parts of our body and even to our food.
Good personal protection
The habit of wearing gloves and boots while doing field work is frequently overlooked. Not only do the items provide a physical barrier to prevent injury or wounds, but they also help reduce our contact with harmful organisms in the soil.
I am sure most readers have fond memory of our mothers fussing to quickly wash our wounds whenever we scrapped our knees or elbows. It turns out there is wisdom in such a practice. Clean water helps wash away the dirt and organism lodged in our wounds, thereby reducing the risk of infection.
Tetanus immunisation has drastically reduced the incidence of tetanus infection. However, the protection wanes over time. It is recommended that one gets a booster jab in a 10-yearly interval.
By practicing the above precautions, I hope everyone will be able to work on their soil safely and enjoy the fruits of their labour! – The Health
Assoc Prof Dr Tan Toh Leong is Senior Lecturer and Emergency Medical Consultant, UKM Medical Center, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and President and Founder of Malaysian Sepsis Alliance (MSA) while Dr Liew Yew Kong is Emergency Physician, Hospital Bintulu, Sarawak and committee member of MSA.