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Steps to guard against leptospirosis

Did you know that July is National Park and Recreation Month? 

Parks and recreation enhance everyone’s quality of life through promotion of conservation, health and wellness, and social equity. In addition to raising awareness of the benefits of engaging in recreational activities in our parks, National Park and Recreation Month is an important opportunity to promote safe behaviors to reduce the incidence of preventable injuries and illnesses while enjoying all that our parks have to offer.

Here on Kauai, we are fortunate to be able to enjoy many outdoor activities year-round. Whether your favorite form of outdoor recreation is swimming, river kayaking, camping or gardening, safety should always be your top priority. It’s important to be aware that swimming or wading in freshwater ponds, streams, waterfalls or puddles — or drinking untreated water from any these sources — carries the risk of exposure to Leptospira bacteria, which cause leptospirosis.

Leptospirosis is transmitted to humans by wild and domestic animals. People can get leptospirosis through exposure to water or mud contaminated with the urine of infected rodents, pigs, cows or dogs. Human infection can also occur through direct contact with the tissues or body fluids of infected animals. The bacteria enter the body through the eyes, nose, mouth, or broken skin.

In Hawaii, cases of infection have been associated with recreational activities such as swimming, hiking, camping and hunting. In addition, persons in occupations that involve contact with fresh water, damp soil or moist vegetation — such as farmers — are at increased risk for leptospirosis.

Onset of symptoms may range from two days to four weeks after exposure to the bacteria. Severity of illness is variable. Mild symptoms can be similar to a flu-like illness, with sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, body aches, vomiting, diarrhea, rash, and/or red eyes. More severe cases of leptospirosis, involving infection of the brain, heart, lungs, liver or kidneys, can be life-threatening.

If you suspect you may have symptoms of leptospirosis, see your physician right away and inform him or her about any recent exposures you’ve had to fresh water, moist soil or plants, or to animals. Early treatment with antibiotics shortens the course of illness. The illness may last from a few days to several weeks; without treatment, recovery can take as long as several months.

There is no available human vaccine effective against leptospirosis. To prevent infection:

Avoid swimming, wading, or submerging your head in freshwater streams, ponds, and waterfalls.

Wear protective clothing such as gloves, boots, long sleeves and heavy pants when you are working in mud or water; gardening; clearing vegetation; wading through standing water; or when handling dead animals or their internal organs. These protective measures are especially important if you have cuts or abrasions on your skin.

Do not drink stream or catchment water without boiling it for at least one minute or chemically treating it beforehand. Filters may not be effective against Leptospira.

Take measures to deter rodent infestation around your home.

Vaccinate pets and livestock against leptospirosis.

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Lisa B. Gelling is an epidemiological specialist, disease investigation branch, with the State of Hawaii Department of Health, Kauai District Health Office.

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