Concern over spike in leptospirosis cases

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Public health officers have recorded a spike in leptospirosis cases in Far North Queensland

Public health officers have recorded a spike in leptospirosis cases in Far North Queensland

A spike in cases of a soil-borne disease across the Far North has public health officials warning locals and visitors to the region to beware of flooded waters and muddy areas this wet season.

Tropical Public Health Services (Cairns) has recorded 10 cases of leptospirosis since January 1, a slightly higher than average percentage of the bacterial disease for this time of year.

Dr Annie Preston-Thomas, Acting Director of TPHS, said seven out of 10 of these cases were hospitalised for treatment, including several requiring intensive care.

‘Many of these cases occurred in agricultural workers, and in people who had been camping or swimming in natural waterways,’ she said.

‘People should already be wary of the dangers of entering flooded waters.’

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

‘It is caused by bacteria called Leptospira which can be passed from animals to people,’ she said.

‘Although the infection 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 of leptospirosis, 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 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
  • clean up rubbish, long grass, food scraps and junk to keep rodents away.