Beware of 'hidden' dangers this wet season

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Flooding can bring all kinds of public health risks.

Flooding can bring all kinds of public health risks.

Locals and visitors to the Far North are being urged to protect themselves against ‘hidden’ dangers of the tropics this wet season, including mosquito, flood and soil-borne diseases.

Tropical Public Health Services (Cairns) Public Health Physician, Dr Annie Preston-Thomas said while mosquitoes were active all year round, they tended to be far more common in wetter conditions between November and April.

She said diseases such as Ross River Fever, Barmah Forest virus disease, and dengue could be spread via mosquito bites.

“The best protection against mosquito-borne diseases is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, in the first place,” Dr Preston-Thomas said.

“All residents need to do their part and take action to eliminate mozzie breeding sites on their properties.

“People should also be protecting themselves by using mosquito repellent.”

Other personal protective measures include: installing insect screens in the home or office; regularly tipping out water from containers around the house; wearing light-coloured clothing; and using other mosquito protection devices such as electric zappers or mosquito coils.

Dr Preston-Thomas said Far North Queenslanders also needed to be wary of disease risks associated with flooded waters, including melioidosis and leptospirosis.

She said both melioidosis and leptospirosis were potentially fatal bacterial diseases, found in contaminated water and soil, with their outbreaks documented worldwide following extreme weather events.

“Melioidosis is caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei, which is typically found in muddy surface waters,” she said.

“Most infections occur when skin abrasions or wounds come into contact with wet soil or water contaminated with the organism.”

Symptoms of acute melioidosis include fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

Sometimes the disease may present as superficial skin infection or abscesses. It always requires hospitalisation and intravenous antibiotics.

Melioidosis can sometimes have a long incubation period and present months or years after exposure.

Dr Preston-Thomas said leptospirosis occurred throughout mainland Australia but was more common in the tropics, especially after flooding.

“It is caused by the bacterium Leptospira which is passed from animals to people,” she said.

“Although it can be passed directly from animals, it is usually transmitted to people by skin or mucous membrane contact with urine of infected animals, which may be in water, moist soil or vegetation.

“There are many different types, and they are widespread in the natural environment.

“Animals which may be infected with Leptospira include cattle, pigs, dogs, horses, rats, mice and native animals such as bandicoots.

“Some people are at increased occupational risk in northern Queensland, such as cane cutters, banana growers and dairy farmers.

“Others may be exposed through outdoor sports such as swimming, wading or white-water rafting in contaminated areas.”

Symptoms of leptospirosis may include fever, severe headache, muscle aches, vomiting and red/ bloodshot eyes.

There may also be cough, abdominal pain and/ or a rash.

People can become severely unwell with involvement of their lungs, liver, kidneys, heart and brain.

Dr Preston-Thomas said that while there is a vaccination for leptospirosis that works in domestic animals, there is no vaccine for melioidosis or leptospirosis that works in people, but there were simple steps everyone could follow to prevent their risk of infection.

These include:

  • Wear protective footwear; avoid walking barefoot on muddy surfaces or in muddy water, particularly if you have cuts or abrasions on your feet or legs
  • Wear gloves while working in the garden, farm etc
  • Wash hands before eating
  • Cover cuts and sores with waterproof dressings
  • Wash thoroughly (preferably shower) after exposure to soil or muddy water, and after working outdoors
  • Diabetics should maintain good foot care, with help from a podiatrist if necessary
  • Avoiding hazardous alcohol use

To prevent leptospirosis, also clean up rubbish, long grass, food scraps and junk to keep rodents away.

Further information:

Meliodosis -

Leptospirosis -

Mosquito-borne diseases -