Leptospirosis and You


This scanning electron micrograph depicts a number of Leptospira sp. bacteria atop a 0.1 µm polycarbonate filter. Leptospires are long, thin motile spirochetes that may be free-living or associated with animal hosts and survive well in fresh water, soil, and mud in tropical areas. Organisms are antigenically complex, with over 200 known pathogenic serologic variants. Molecular taxonomic studies at CDC and elsewhere have identified 13 named and 4 unnamed species of pathogenic leptospires. Photo Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control.

According to Wikipedia:

“Leptospirosis (also known as field fever, rat catcher’s yellows, and pretibial fever among other names) is an infection caused by corkscrew-shaped bacteria Leptospira. Symptoms can range from none to mild such as headaches, muscle pains, and fevers; to severe with bleeding from the lungs or meningitis. If the infection causes the person to turn yellow, have kidney failure and bleeding it is then known as Weil’s disease. If it causes lots of bleeding from the lungs it is known as severe pulmonary haemorrhage syndrome.”

The disease is quite nasty and sometimes deadly, however if you live in a developed country you won’t normally have contact with the rat or cattle urine that typically carries this disease. The exception is the population that recreates outdoors in warm and wet areas of the world.   That may suggest that you are fairly safe, but maybe not.

We came across the story of Sam Owen, a kayaker that believed he caught the disease in the Itchen River in Southampton, England.  Reports suggest the 28 mile long river is fairly clean, except perhaps, for cattle intruding on the river from surrounding farms.  That may have been the source of his infection, but it is also possible he ran into the bacteria while rock climbing in Wales.  In either case these areas can be wet,  but they aren’t often warm and wet simultaneously.

When being quizzed by his doctor, Owen is quoted as saying: “As soon as I told him about the kayaking I was given an antidote to try and fight the disease.”  The antidote was probably an antibiotic, typically IV penicillin.

There isn’t any way you can really protect yourself from getting the disease, so the key is to be aware of the symptoms and get to a doctor when you first recognize them.  First of all, there is a seven to twelve day incubation period before symptoms appear.  The symptoms include:

  • sudden fever accompanied by chills,
  • intense headache,
  • severe muscle ache,
  • abdominal pain, 
  • red eye,
  • cough,
  • nausea and vomiting,
  • loss of appetite and
  • a skin rash (sometimes)

These symptoms will disappear after three to seven days as your body produces antibodies and clears the bacteria from the blood.  That sounds good, but the disease continues to progress after three or four more days with things like:

  • fever,
  • brain inflammation (meningitis),
  • liver damage (jaundice),
  • kidney failure,
  • heart damage,
  • lung issues,
  • central nervous system problems and
  • bleeding.

Without proper treatment and management of the various organ issues, multiple organ failures can lead to death.

The bottom line: know the symptoms and get immediate medical assistance if you start seeing them in yourself or someone else.

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