Leptospirosis

Last Updated on 3 weeks by Publishing Team

What it is?

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals. It is caused by bacteria of the genus Leptospira. In humans, it can cause a wide range of symptoms, some of which may be mistaken for other diseases. Some infected persons, however, may have no symptoms at all.

Without treatment, leptospirosis can lead to kidney damage, meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord), liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death.

How is it Spread?

The bacteria that cause leptospirosis are spread through the urine of infected animals, which can get into water or soil and can survive there for weeks, even months. Many different kinds of wild and domestic animals carry the bacterium.

These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Cattle
  • Pigs
  • Rats
  • Horses
  • Dogs
  • Mongoose

When these animals are infected, they may have no symptoms of the disease.

Infected animals may continue to excrete the bacteria into the environment continuously or every once in a while for a few months up to several years.

Humans can become infected through:

  • Contact with urine (or other body fluids, except saliva) from infected animals
  • Contact with water, soil, or food contaminated with the urine of infected animals.

The bacteria can enter the body through skin or mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth), especially if the skin is broken from a cut or scratch.

Drinking water or food contaminated by the leptospirosis bacteria can also cause infection.

Who is at risk?

While in other parts of the world leptospirosis is mostly seen in people who work on farms, or work closely with animals, in Fiji leptospirosis is also a more common infection seen in rural and urban areas. With increases in severe weather events due to climate change, leptospirosis is becoming even more prevalent than in the past. Anyone can get leptospirosis if they are exposed to the urine of infected animals, but in Fiji the disease is most commonly seen in people between the age of adolescence to 45, as this is the age group more likely to be active outdoors e.g. swimming in rivers, wading in muddy areas. In Fiji, the rainy season also increases the risk of leptospirosis, due to higher rainfall, which increases the risk of contaminated animal urine washing into waterways and mud/soil.

What are the Symptoms?

In humans, leptospirosis can cause a wide range of symptoms, including:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches
  • Vomiting
  • Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
  • Red eyes
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Rash

Many of these symptoms can be mistaken for other diseases. In addition, some infected persons may have no symptoms at all.

The time between a person’s exposure to a contaminated source and becoming sick is 2 days – 4 weeks. Illness usually begins abruptly with fever and other symptoms. Leptospirosis may occur in two phases;

  • 1. After the first phase (with fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, vomiting, or diarrhoea) the patient may recover for a time but become ill again.
  • 2. If a second phase occurs, it is more severe; the person becomes severely ill, may have a cough and coughing up blood, blood in the urine, with kidney or liver failure or meningitis. This phase is also called Weil’s disease.

The illness lasts from a few days to 3 weeks or longer. Without proper treatment, recovery may take several months. People who develop severe leptospirosis are at risk of death.

If you or anyone you know has any of the above symptoms, you should seek urgent medical attention.

How do I reduce my risk of catching Leptospirosis?

The risk of acquiring leptospirosis can be greatly reduced by not swimming or wading in water that might be contaminated with animal urine or eliminating contact with potentially infected animals.

Protective clothing or footwear should be worn by those exposed to contaminated water or soil because of their job or recreational activities.

To avoid becoming infected:

  • You must store your food safely away from animals, including rats
  • You must always wear protective clothing and protective footwear outside of your home, especially around animals and agricultural areas
  • Never swim in contaminated waters

How is it treated?

Leptospirosis is treated with antibiotics administered by a doctor, which should be given early in the course of the disease.

Intravenous antibiotics may be required for persons with more severe symptoms. Persons with severe leptospirosis will need intensive care in a hospital.