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Svalbard - Health and safety
With Dr Felicity Nicholson
Rabies and other diseases
Svalbard, with its cool climate, is a tough area for many microbes – but it is not completely free of diseases.There is rabies in Svalbard, which has been observed especially in foxes, but also in reindeer and seals. This is another reason not to attract 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 saliva on skin, or, if you are very unlucky, in your eyes, nose or mouth. If bitten, 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 any wounds thoroughly with soap and running water for 10 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 readily available, but it is still 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 that if you do contract full-blown 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 well underway to prevent this, including the mandatory 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 boiling beforehand.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on ISTM. For other journey preparation information, consult NaTHNac (UK) or CDC (US). Information about various medications may be found on NetDoctor. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
As far as crime goes, Svalbard is one of the safest places on Earth. Many residents regularly leave their car and house doors unlocked. Local crime statistics are modest and generally hinge around alcohol or driving without correct paperwork – and to a very minimal degree when compared with the rest of Europe.
Polar bear risks
Polar bears are a natural part of Svalbard’s environment. Though the majority of the bears keep to the ice border, some of them can also be encountered on land at any time of the year and are by no means restricted to ice-covered and marine environments only. One student group from UNIS was attacked by a polar bear at an altitude of 1,100m above sea level, far from the ice. 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 face severe difficulty in stalking 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 and insects as well as 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 when it involves discovering new sources of food. Man is not part of the bear’s natural environment, so the animals have no programmed behaviour when confronted by humans. As a result, their response in such encounters is unpredictable – from fleeing in panic to ignoring us altogether to an outright attack. When polar bears were first hunted, they quickly developed a certain shyness around humans. However, since the end of hunting in 1973, this this is no longer the case and their numbers in Svalbard have grown – from a few hundred to around 3,000, making an encounter much more likely than half a century ago. Young bears that 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 often become quite hungry and desperate. Even a small young bear weighing around 80kg is a potentially deadly opponent. Female bears with cubs are especially dangerous, too, particularly if caught by surprise. Finally, elder bears, generally 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 – and indeed part of its allure – but this should be met with reasonable behaviour and equipment, not with panic and fear. Nor should its potential dangers be underestimated. One might compare this with the case of vehicular transportation: many of us use cars in some capacity, even though they result in about 25,000 deaths per year in Europe alone. As with driving, in the case of polar bears, it’s up to us to minimise the chance of an accident, while at the same time accepting that there will always be some residual risk. When properly armed and trained (or at least when sticking close to somebody who is), one can enjoy a journey around Svalbard without unduly worrying about the bears. Statistics support this: no properly armed person has been injured or killed by a polar bear in the last 50 years in Svalbard. There have been casualties, indeed, but all victims were unarmed or inadequately armed.
Travellers with a disability
Understandably, Svalbard is a difficult destination for travellers with disabilities. Firstly, even when cruise ships themselves might be organised sufficiently well, some of the gangways can be too narrow for wheelchair users to enter or leave the ship.
Secondly, the settlements are not well equipped. Longyearbyen has mostly flat (or slow incline) streets, but there is generally no actual pavement to speak of. Furthermore, 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 (the Radisson, for example) can be used by wheelchair users without any assistance. Barentsburg, which sits on a very steep slope, is the most difficult place for those with physical disabilities.
What to take
According to the laws of Svalbard, visitors are responsible for their own safety, which includes regulations regarding equipment. The staff at the Sysselmann office has the right to check a person’s kit for suitability, and may restrict or even send back those travellers whom they feel are insufficiently prepared. Inadequate equipment is one of the main reasons why permission is withheld for a project. Those who join organised tours will have some items provided for them. But independent travellers need to do more and must have appropriate Arctic outdoor experience if they are going to be adequately prepared – gaining that experience should not begin with one’s first trip to Svalbard. The Norwegian administration may inspect and control, but it does not provide a comprehensive list; there are simply too many variables and factors. The responsibility lies with the individual. However, the following are officially required:
- Warm, wind-resistant summer and winter clothing, suitable for the chosen season
- Bivouac supplies with reserves for low temperatures
- First-aid kit
- Emergency signalling apparatus – at least a SARSAT PLB for travelling in areas where a tour permission is required
- Large-calibre weapon
- Camp-alarm system for tours that involve camping
- Survival suit (if going on the water)
- Sufficient provisions in addition for some extra days in unexpected situations