Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease meaning it can be transmitted to humans from infected animals. It is caused by bacteria called Leptospira. Clinical leptospirosis requires antibiotic treatment and recovery can take weeks or months, depending on the severity of the disease and how quickly diagnosis and treatment commences. It can be a very nasty debilitating illness, so prevention is much better than treatment. Currently, there is no lepto vaccine for humans but there are vaccines available for several animal species including cattle, pigs, deer, sheep, and dogs. Vaccination can stop animals shedding the bacteria and reduce the chances of them spreading the infection.
How is lepto spread?
Wild animals, pets, and farm animals can all carry Leptospira. An infected animal will shed bacteria in urine (and other bodily fluids) and can pass on the infection to humans or animals who come into contact, either directly or indirectly, with the infected animal or contaminated material.
How common is leptospirosis?
Approximately 50 to 100 cases of leptospirosis are notified each year in New Zealand.
What are the signs of lepto?
The common symptoms of leptospirosis for humans include fever and chills, headaches and lethargy, aching muscles, red eyes, nausea, and vomiting. More severe symptoms of leptospirosis known as Weil’s disease affects the kidney and liver and you may have symptoms like jaundice, unexplained bleeding, meningitis and even death. Symptoms appear between 1 to 4 weeks after becoming infected and generally last for a few days to three weeks. Some people may take many months to recover.
Who is most at risk?
Anyone can be at risk of contracting lepto as wildlife carry the disease. However, people who spend significant time around animals are at greater risk, e.g., farmers, meat processing workers, vets, hunters, and people with unvaccinated pets which are exposed to high foot traffic areas such as beaches, reserves, and waterways.
How is the disease prevented?
Vaccination of all eligible animals is a great way to prevent disease both in our animals and in ourselves. Other important prevention measures include regular hand washing particularly before eating and drinking (or smoking); covering any cuts or grazes with waterproof bandages; pest and rodent control; wearing appropriate footwear and protective clothing in high-risk areas/working environments or while gardening; avoiding contact with stagnant water and flooding or other high-risk settings (your pets should also avoid these areas). You can further reduce the risk to your pets by not feeding raw offal.
“I have sadly never personally met any vet who has managed to get a dog back from lepto once clinical kidney signs have set in. I completely agree that prevention better than cure! Thankfully, because of widespread vaccination uptake and careful owners management of their pets we don’t see too many cases.”
Dr K. Ashcroft
Leptospirosis is such a serious disease that it is notifiable to the Medical Officer of Health at Community and Public Health.
Take care of yourself and your animals and avoid this nasty infection.