Alaska waters can be teeming with giardia, as this science writer knows too well

An illustration of a single giardia cell. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Giardia is no joke. Just ask Ned Rozell of the Alaska Science Forum.

Rozell wrote about the intestinal parasite in his weekly science column, put out by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and he’s even had it.

OK, so, he’s had it more than a couple times.

As Rozell told Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove, giardia are single-celled creatures that get inside mammals — science columnists included — and multiply by the millions.

Listen here:

You can hear more of Ned Rozell”s science reporting on the Alaska Science Pod.

The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Ned Rozell: This little creature, you can’t really see it. It lives its life in two stages, often in the water. And the one that people can pick up is called a cyst. And it’s microscopic. And they come from other mammals like us — beavers get a bad rap. But the life stages, yeah, you would drink or just get some untreated water on your lips, on your tongue and you ingest it. It goes down into your belly and eventually makes its way into your small intestine. And then this cyst kind of hatches. It’s like a tablet, and the outside coating dissolves in your intestine. And then it morphs into its really active life stage where these little guys attach to your small intestine, and you can’t absorb any water because they just multiply like crazy. And then you feel really bad.

Casey Grove: Can people die from giardia?

Ned Rozell: Probably in real extreme cases. Because it does, for one, get rid of all your fluids one way or another. And you’re really not hungry at all. So you’re not replenishing those. And you’re kind of afraid to eat or drink as well, because you know it won’t stay with you very long.

Luckily, it doesn’t go on forever. The life cycle of this creature is a couple of weeks. But lucky for me — or unlucky for me — I have picked up this little parasite three different times in my Alaska life. And so I knew pretty quickly what it was. My indicator was my belly making a lot of noise and not feeling well. And had I been outside within one to two weeks of that? Yes I had. I did a little packrafting trip on the South Fork of the Chena River. And I treated my water and you can get rid of giardia in water by boiling it — that kills most everything. I use a Steripen, it’s kind of like this finger you put in your water for two minutes or so. And it blasts the water with ultraviolet light. And that also kills giardia, and I was using it on that trip. But it just takes a little bit — like maybe a little water around the rim of my water bottle or, who knows, maybe my dog was drinking the water and gave me a big kiss on the face, which I don’t shy away from. I was just unlucky.

Casey Grove: So when you started putting this column together originally, were there things that you learned that surprised you about giardia?

Ned Rozell: Yeah, maybe that it wasn’t all beavers. Scientists have found that muskrats kind of emit more of them than beavers do. And as humans, we get rid of a lot of them, too, if we are infected. Pretty much any mammal — and there’s a lot of mammals in Alaska — all they need to do is poop in the water, including humans, and then that kind of keeps the train going. You know, there’s a lot of those cysts out in our Alaska water.

Casey Grove: So, any words of advice for somebody that comes down with giardia or giardiasis, is that how you say it?

Ned Rozell: Yeah, that’s kind of the disease name.

You can knock it out pretty quick if you know what you’ve got. Get with your doctor, you usually have to give a sample. Or, if you have a doctor like mine, she knows the drill because I’ve been there a few times. And I said, “I know what I’ve got. Can you give me a prescription?” And she did. And it’s just an antibiotic. And it’d be good for your outdoor kit, too. If you know you’ll be gone a month or something on some cool trip, like four tablets of that could really get you out of trouble. You take two a day and, after a couple days, I think it really knocks it out.

Casey Grove: Cool. I’m sorry you got giardia, though.

Ned Rozell: Yeah, it’s kind of funny when it’s not you. You got to admit. Everybody laughs. Everybody, the first time I tell them, they either crack up right off or they just smile. I get it.

Casey Grove: Well, it’s sort of an untold poop joke, right?

Ned Rozell: Yeah, and we’re kind of wired to laugh at those.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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