Leptospirosis is a disease caused by bacteria in the leptospira group. While this bacterial disease can be found all over the world, including the United States, it is more often than not prevalent in tropical and temperate climates in areas of the world that are rural and stricken with poverty.

Access to proper hygiene and protective measures are the reasons why it is not a commonly occurring disease in this country.

Affects Both Animals and Humans

Many people who get leptospirosis are exposed to the urine of infected animals, typically through a water source. A number of different animals carry the leptospira group of bacteria and some of them will never show signs of illness but others may. These bacteria are commonly found in farm animals such as horses, cattle, pigs and dogs. However, rodents and other wild animals may also have the disease.

Water, food and soil can become contaminated by the leptospirosis found in the animal urine and people become exposed to it through these means. Food grown in contaminated soil, walking barefoot or swimming in contaminated water and even drinking it can cause the disease.

The water just has to touch a mucosal membrane like the eyes, nose or mouth or even an open sore or scratch on the skin. Luckily, the disease does not seem to be spread from person to person contact.

Symptoms of Leptospirosis

The time between exposure to the disease to the presentation of the first symptoms may be anywhere from just a few days to a month later. Fever comes on suddenly and may be high. Bad headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches and pains and chills are additional symptoms. Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin) is a possibility as well as rash, bloodshot eyes and stomach pain.

Some people may seem to recover temporarily but may become sick once more. If a second stage of the illness occurs, it will likely be more severe with meningitis symptoms, kidney problems, respiratory illness and liver damage. It is imperative that treatment be rendered before the second stage begins as some damage to the internal organs may be permanent.

The problem with diagnosing leptospirosis is that the symptoms can mimic other diseases. It takes a blood test and urine sample to definitively diagnose this disease so that proper treatment may be rendered.

Treatment and Prevention of the Disease

Leptospirosis is treated easily with antibiotics such as penicillin or doxycycline as long as it is administered early on in the illness. IV antibiotics are best for those with more severe presentation of symptoms. In addition, treatment of the symptoms through pain medication as well as hydration may be necessary as well.

Visiting foreign countries where sanitary conditions are not the norm (i.e. poverty stricken areas), it is important to take proper precautions such as not swimming or wading in waters that may be contaminated with leptospirosis. In addition, you should not go barefoot in these countries as walking in contaminated water or soil can also cause the disease.

Many outdoor enthusiasts like campers and rafters are at higher risk of getting the disease in addition to farmers, livestock workers, military personnel and even health care workers in poor areas. At the first signs of illness, antibiotics should be administered, especially if no health care facilities are immediately available for lab analysis of blood or urine.

Photo: By CDC/ Rob Weyant. Scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicting a number of Leptospira sp. bacteria.

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