Leptospirosis: A Hawaiian Problem

December 22, 2010, 9:42 AM HST · Updated December 22, 9:42 AM
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Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that affects both humans and animals. It is a relatively rare condition, with only about 100-200 cases reported in the United States each year. However, of that number, around 50% come from the islands of Hawaii. Because the disease is more prevalent in the tropical climate here, it is important to understand what leptospirosis is and how to recognize the symptoms so you can seek medical attention as soon as possible.

How is it Transmitted?

Leptospirosis is transmitted by contact with soil or water that has been contaminated with the bacteria through infected animal urine. It is often found in freshwater ponds and waterfalls, where the bacteria can live for exceedingly long periods of time. When humans swim in or drink from these infected waters, they can also contract the disease. This is particularly true for humans who have cuts or sores that make it easy for the bacteria to enter the body. It can also be transmitted through exposure to flood waters, touching infected animals or farming in contaminated soil.

What are the Symptoms?

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The symptoms of leptospirosis are often hard to identify, because they are similar to many other viral and bacterial infections. Common symptoms of early leptospirosis include:

  • Fever
  • Headache and body aches
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Sweating and chills
  • Weakness and loss of appetite
  • Eye pain and red eyes

If the disease is left untreated, more serious symptoms can develop, including:

  • Stiff neck
  • Jaundice
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver failure
  • Meningitis
  • Heart failure

In rare instances, people can die from leptospirosis. However, early detection of the disease usually results in a round of oral antibiotics, which effectively treats the condition the majority of the time. Those who are diagnosed with leptospirosis in the later stages may require hospitalization and IV antibiotics to get rid of the disease once and for all.

Preventing Leptospirosis

Of course, the best way to treat leptospirosis is to treat the condition before it ever begins. Prevention tips include:

  • Avoid swimming in freshwater ponds and waterfalls, especially if you have cuts or open wounds
  • Do not drink any water before it is sterilized through vigorous boiling for at least one full minute or chemical treatment
  • Use protective clothing when you are working around moist soil or water or caring for pets and livestock
  • Have pets immunized against leptospirosis annually to prevent the spread of the disease into your home
  • Control wildlife and pests around your home

Leptospirosis is more common in Hawaii, but the good news is that it can be prevented and treated. With these tips, you are equipped to protect your family from this bacterial disease all through the year.

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