Leptospirosis hits Kerala- but what is it?

In the aftermath of major floods in India’s Kerala state, rotting livestock corpses are contaminating water and have added to the considerable challenges. Locals and health officials are also fighting infectious diseases such as leptospirosis or ‘rat fever’.

At least 34 deaths in the state since August are thought to be from leptospirosis.

Since August, 372 confirmed cases of ‘rat fever’ have been reported from across Kerala.

Health Minister KK Shailaja said those engaged in cleaning operations should take the antibiotic doxycycline and to seek treatment if they appear to have fever.

Health officials in the state said there was no immediate cause for alarm and the situation was under control.

Devastating flooding has killed around 400 people in Kerala since June.

Kerala is a popular destination sport for tourists

Kerala is a popular destination spot for tourists

Fear of fever

After the floods, we were expecting to see water-borne diseases like cholera, typhoid, diarrhoea, hepatitis and rat fever,” Dr Iqbal Babukunju, a senior government health official, told BBC Hindi’s Imran Qureshi.

“People have just started going back to their homes from the relief camps. In many homes that have been chlorinated, water had not receded. This was inevitable,” he added.

So far the illness has been detected in five of the 13 districts that were hit by flooding.

“All the hospitals are well equipped with penicillin as well. Guidelines have also been issued to private hospitals on how to treat patients with rat fever,” Dr Saritha R, the director of health services in Kerala, said.

“Rats drown in flood water which contaminates it further, allowing the leptospiro bacteria to enter the human body through the skin,” said Dr V Ravi, a professor of virology at India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro sciences.

In 90% of cases, leptospirosis only causes mild flu-like symptoms, such as a headache, chills and muscle pain.


Haemorrhagic jaundice

Leptospirosis is spread to humans by animals and is also known sewerman’s flu, swamp fever, haemorrhagic jaundice, mud fever and swineherd’s disease.

‘Weil’s disease’ is diagnosed in patients exhibiting a more severe form of Leptospirosis, with symptoms including jaundice (with hepatocellular necrosis), liver failure and acute kidney injury.

The lungs are involved in approximately 70% of cases of leptospirosis. Pulmonary symptoms vary from cough, dyspnoea, and haemoptysis to adult respiratory distress syndrome and massive pulmonary haemorrhage.


Leptospira Sp. by Cnri

Urine trouble

It’s possible to become infected by touching soil or water contaminated with the urine of wild animals infected with the leptospira bacteria.

The bacteria usually enters the body through cuts or grazes, or via the lining of the nose, mouth, throat or eyes. Very few patients suffer the life-threatening illness known as Weil’s disease, thought to kill two or three people a year in Britain.

It was widely reported to have been the cause of death of Olympic gold medal-winning rower Andy Holmes.


Naturally aquatic

Animals known to be carriers of the leptospira bacteria include cattle, pigs, dogs and rodents, particularly rats. Infected animals carry the bacteria in their kidneys, often without symptoms.

They can excrete leptospires in their urine for some time. The spirochaetes are shed from the urine and can survive in the environment for several months in moist, warm conditions.

Leptospires are naturally aquatic organisms and are found in fresh water, damp soil, vegetation, and mud. Flooding may spread the organism because, as water saturates the soil, leptospires pass directly into surface waters

The condition is uncommon in the UK, but people who regularly deal with animals, such as farmers and vets, have a higher risk of developing leptospirosis. A diagnosis of leptospirosis can be confirmed by running a series of blood and urine tests to check for specific antibodies.

There’s no available human vaccine effective against leptospirosis, but an animal vaccine is available.


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