Svalbard - Health and safety



With Dr Felicity Nicholson

Svalbard, with its cool climate, is a tough area for many microbes – but it is not completely free of diseases. As mentioned before, there is rabies in Svalbard which has been observed especially in foxes, but also in reindeer and seals as well. This is another reason to abstain from attracting animals with food, which is a dubious practice anyway, in ecologically intact areas.

Rabies is passed on to humans through a bite, a scratch or a lick of an open wound. You must always assume that the foxes, reindeer and seals are rabid as there is no way of looking at them and knowing and medical help should be sought as soon as is practicably possible. In the interim, scrub the wound thoroughly with soap and running water for ten to 15 minutes, then pour on a strong iodine or alcohol solution. This can help to prevent the rabies virus from entering the body and will guard against wound infections, including tetanus. The decision whether or not to have the highly effective rabies vaccine will depend on the nature of your trip.

If you do decide to take the vaccine, ideally three pre-exposure doses should be taken over a minimum 21-day period. If you think you have been exposed to rabies, then treatment should be given as soon as possible. At least two post-bite rabies injections are needed, even for immunised people. Those who have not been immunised will need a full course of injections together with rabies immunoglobulin (RIG). This product may not always be available, but it is important to receive it if you have not had pre-exposure vaccine. Treatment should be given as soon as possible, but it is never too late to seek help as the incubation period for rabies can be very long. Remember if you contract rabies, mortality is 100%.

Since the 1990s, the presence of Echinococcus multilocularis, a potentially lethal tapeworm, has been found in the area between Bjørndalen and Grumant. Normally, this tapeworm switches in its two stages between fox and mouse, being fairly harmless for the fox but dangerous for mice. Unfortunately, man can replace the mouse in the development circle of the tapeworm, and dogs can take over the role of the fox. Incubation time of this disease, which is spread over wide parts of Europe, can be up to an amazing 15 years and, if discovered late, is very difficult to cure and is often lethal.

As mice are not normally part of Svalbard nature, this disease should have little chance. But in the Grumant area, mice from Russia managed to survive and reproduce in the hanging moors, thereby closing the development circle of this parasite, which may therefore reach nearby Longyearbyen. Steps are already underway to prevent this, including stipulating the vaccination of all dogs.

The infection is contracted by accidentally ingesting animal faeces. Do not handle fox or dog faeces without wearing gloves or better still avoid them altogether. It may also be spread by faecally soiled dog hair and harnesses. It is recommended not to drink the water in the Grumant–Bjørndalen area without previous boiling.

Travel clinics and health information

A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on For other journey preparation information, consult (UK) or (US). Information about various medications may be found on All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.


Polar bear risks

Polar bears are a natural part of the Svalbard environment. Though the majority of them follow the ice border, some of them can also be met on land at any time of the year and are by no means restricted to ice-covered areas and marine environments only. One student group from UNIS was attacked by a polar bear far from the nearest ice border at an altitude of 1,100m above sea level. With the seasonal retreat of the ice border to the east and north in summer, the number of polar bears in central and western Spitsbergen becomes correspondingly lower – but, unfortunately, the few bears that remain have greater problems stalking the seals and grow more desperate as a result. In winter, when the western fjords are partly ice-covered and offer resting possibilities for seals on the ice, the number of polar bears increases too – even on the fjord ice just outside Longyearbyen, a polar bear trying to stalk a seal is not an uncommon sight.

Contrary to grizzlies or Kodiak bears, which can reach similar sizes but are omnivores (living to a large extent on plants, insects and, in addition, fish and meat), the polar bear is a pure carnivore which cannot survive without a diet of mostly meat. What’s more, polar bears have no natural enemies and are, like many polar animals, inquisitive in order to find new sources of food. Man is not part of the bear’s natural environment, so the animals have no programmed behaviour when confronted by man. As a result, their response is unpredictable – from fleeing in panic to ignoring us altogether or, the worst-case scenario, a straight attack. When polar bears were first hunted, they quickly acquired a certain shyness with man.

However, since the end of hunting in 1973, this acquired behaviour has vanished again, while their numbers have grown too, from a few hundred in Svalbard to 3,000, making an encounter much more likely than in the 1970s. Young bears which have recently been chased away by their mother after two years as cubs are perhaps the most unpredictable, particularly as, left to fend for themselves, they are often quite hungry and desperate. Even a small young bear of around 80kg is a potentially deadly opponent. Female bears with cubs are especially dangerous, too, particularly if surprised. Finally, elder bears, too slow for successful seal hunts, may also experiment with man as a source of food.

The possibility of a confrontation with a polar bear is all part of the Svalbard experience, but this should be met with reasonable behaviour and equipment, not with panic and fear; but neither should you underestimate the dangers. I like to compare this with motorised traffic: we all use cars in some capacity, even though they cost more than 10,000 lives per year in Europe alone. And as with driving, it’s up to us to do what we can to minimise the chance of an accident, while at the same time accepting that there will always be a residual risk.

The situation with polar bears is similar: when properly armed and trained (or at least when with somebody who is), one can enjoy a journey around Svalbard without unduly worrying about the bears. I myself feel much more unsafe on a bicycle in road traffic, than when properly armed out in the wilderness of Svalbard. Statistics support this: no properly armed person has been injured or killed by a polar bear in the last 50 years in Svalbard.

Travellers with a disability

Svalbard is a difficult destination for the disabled. Firstly, whereas cruise ships themselves might be organised sufficiently well, gangways can be too narrow for wheelchair users to enter or leave the ship. Secondly, the villages are not well equipped. Longyearbyen has only a few steep streets, but there is no pavement, only a few multi-storey buildings have a lift and older buildings may not be accessible without using steps. Only the most expensive hotel rooms can be used by wheelchair users without help. Barentsburg, which sits on a very steep slope, is the most difficult place for the physically handicapped. Those with severe difficulties may find it hard to do much at all without a great deal of help.

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