What You Should Know About Leptospirosis

It is known by many names – canicola fever, hemorrhagic jaundice, infectious jaundice, mud fever, spirochetal jaundice, swamp fever, swineherd’s disease, caver’s flu, and sewerman’s flu. But it’s most commonly known as leptospirosis. It is a bacterial infection caused by a bacterium called Leptospira interrogans.

It is spread through food, soil or water that is contaminated by the urine of infected animals such as dogs, rats, skunks, raccoons, opossums and foxes. People can acquire this disease through ingestion of contaminated food or water, or through skin contact (broken skin, wounds, or lesions) with contaminated water or soil.

It occurs in different parts of the world but it is most common in the tropical regions. In the United States, half of the cases reported occur in Hawaii. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 200 cases of leptospirosis occur annually. In the Philippines, when a strong typhoon hit the country in 2009, there was a leptospirosis outbreak with a staggering number of 1,887 cases, 138 of which resulted in death.

What are the Symptoms?
Symptoms may arise 2 to 25 days after exposure to the bacteria. During the initial stage, a person may experience symptoms similar to flu. These include headaches, muscle pains, eye pain, chills, and fever. A person may also feel sensitivity to light. After these, the person would feel slightly well. During the second phase, the early symptoms will recur. These would be accompanied by neck stiffness, watering and redness of eyes, jaundice, and abdominal pain. Some patients also have severe inflammation in the nerves of eyes, brain, and spinal column.

Who are at Risk?
People who work closely with animals such as veterinarians and pet shop owners as well as those who work in farms and sewage systems are at high risk of this disease. But employment is not the only thing that increases your susceptibility to this ailment. Recreation and sporting activities such as canoeing, rafting, hiking, and swimming also increase the risk of exposure to contaminated soil or water.

How is it Treated?
A major aspect of leptospirosis treatment is high dosage of antibiotics. Antibiotics such as doxycycline and penicillin are effective during the early stage of the illness. When the disease has progressed to complications, intensive medical care along with antibiotic treatment should be in order. In cases where kidney is affected, dialysis is included in the treatment. Early detection is crucial. If the illness is detected during the early stage, there is much bigger chance of full recovery from it.

If the disease is not treated immediately, complications such as kidney damage, meningitis, respiratory disease, or liver failure may occur. Death may also occur, but it only happens rarely since most of the time the symptoms are apparent and most people with this disease are given immediate help.

Can it be Prevented with a Vaccine?
Yes it can be. In fact, a vaccine for this disease has long been available and used in Asia and Europe. It is given once a year like the flu shot. In Cuba, experts are currently studying a longer-lasting vaccine. No vaccine is available in the United States at present.

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