Q: Is it safe to swim in the ocean if you’re worried about leptospirosis? A: In the recent Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau informational sheet, information from state Department of Health officials offered a general rule advising people to stay out of the water immediately after a storm due to health and safety concerns.
However, Scott Bacon, of Kilauea, pointed out that this information is very general, and that one person’s definition of “immediately” may vary from another person’s.
According to the Leptospirosis Information Center’s Web site, leptospirosis is a bacteria that must enter the body in a certain quantity in order to infect you. Unlike viruses, bacteria are rarely airborne, so inhalation is very uncommon. The bacteria must exist in water. It may take anywhere from four to 10 days for symptoms to occur.
But where does the bacteria come from? Leptospirosis is most commonly transferred from the feces of an infected animal, which is often in runoff into a stream or river during heavy rains, and may survive there for up to one month.
Although bacteria may survive up to one month in fresh water, they can only survive in salt water for a few hours. Also, because bacteria doesn’t multiply once leaving the host, fast-flowing water has a lower risk of infection, as it breaks apart large quantities of the bacteria. Ocean waters should be safe for swimming a few hours after the runoff enters the ocean. However, the longer you wait, the less likely you will be infected.
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