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Water engineers on vole virus alert

HEART FAILURE suffered by a Salford City Council engineer earlier this year has been traced to a virus carried by voles living near the watercourses on which he worked. The engineer spent six months recovering.

Salford City Council has taken the link so seriously that it issued a health and safety notice to warn employees and contractors working on river and canal projects where voles may live.

The warning advises that engineers should be told: 'A member of our staff has been taken seriously ill following work which includes being on that site and that the cause is being investigated,' and instructs: 'they must take all reasonable steps to avoid possible contamination ... wear wellington boots on site (and) cover up cuts and grazes'.

It emphasises that engineers: 'MUST wash their hands as soon as their work on any of the three sites identified has been completed'.

However, the discovery coincides with the launch of a British Waterways water vole conservation project which encourages civil engineers to find vole-friendly bank engineering systems to protect dwindling water vole populations.

Salford City Council water engineer Nigel Openshaw fell ill last spring shortly after he worked on a project on the River Erwell where voles are known to live. Despite the seriousness of his illness, which led to heart failure and six months off work, doctors were unable to explain the cause.

His own subsequent investigation spotted the possible link between voles and human heart disease. This led him to new research from the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control which suggests bank voles carry a virus capable of causing heart failure and diabetes in humans.

It is believed the virus could be spread through the urine of voles in the same way that Weil's Disease - Leptospirosis - is passed on by rats.

'Doctors are not 100% sure but they are looking at the connection,' said Openshaw. 'Voles are known to urinate all over the place and I visited a site where voles are believed to live shortly before falling ill. The sequence of events leading up to my illness confirms the link,' he explained.

Research was carried out by Swedish scientist Bo Niklasson to explain the deaths of six Swedish orienteers from myocarditis - a rare form of heart infection - in the early 1990s. He discovered a link between the incidence of diabetes and deaths caused by heart disease in northern Sweden and fluctuations in the population of bank voles.

When Openshaw found the research, he immediately informed Salford City Council which issued the precautionary health and safety notice to contractors working in potential risk areas.

A spokesman for the council said: 'The memo was issued after one of our staff reported sickness that could possibly be related to an infection carried by water-borne animals.' However, a source explained that Salford was taking the link very seriously and added: 'We are carrying out an investigation but we need to strike a balance between starting rumours and being sensible.'

A spokesman for British Waterways also confirmed that it was looking into the situation but denied that the Swedish research pointed to any increased risk in work near watercourses. 'The research talks about bank voles, which is one of Britain's most common mammals and doesn't necessarily favour a water habitat. Bank voles are a different species from water voles.'

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