Leptospirosis is one of the most common animal-derived infections on the planet. While relatively rare, and predominantly confined to specific regions of India, recent outbreaks after incidences of flooding in Kerala have underlined the disease as particularly dangerous, especially in these extreme circumstances which are increasing in number against the advent of climate change.
Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it is spread through animals. This means the disease is more commonly found within rural environments, making it typically a problem for India’s agricultural communities. The disease can also be spread to humans via infected water, and is a particular risk during flooding, as was the case in multiple parts of India this year.
The disease can be passed into water supplies through the urine of animals. This may include either livestock or rodents. As such, though the disease is typically more common to rural areas, rodent infestations can bring the disease to urban areas as well.
Contaminated water allows for the disease to enter the body through injuries to the skin, eyes, or even mucous membranes. As such, any individual coming into contact with infected water is at risk of infection with leptospirosis.
The Kerala floods observed last year perfectly demonstrate the risk of the disease extreme weather events like flooding can cause. With over a million individuals displaced and many hundreds of thousands living in the close confines of refugee camps, conditions are rife for unsanitary water supplies to spread the disease.
Leptospirosis is the name given to the milder form of the disease, which involves symptoms similar to many other infectious diseases. These may include fever, nausea and vomiting, conjunctivitis or a short lived rash.
In its more severe form, usually occurring several days following the initial symptoms, the disease is characterised as Weil’s disease. This can involve liver damage, which can cause noticeable symptoms such as jaundice. Meningitis is another possibility, as well as damage to the kidneys, heart and lungs. Due to the variety of symptoms the disease has the potential to be fatal, particularly when comorbidity occurs in people with pre-existing conditions.
Prevention and treatment
Prevention of leptospirosis, as was the case in Kerala, is often difficult if circumstances present large volumes of stagnant water. For farmers, particularly those working in rice paddies, the disease is a constant threat. Protective clothing and proper wound dressing is vital to preventing the disease, as is proper hygiene practice if working or living in a high-risk area.
A number of medications can be used in the case of an infection, such as Ampicillin, Azithromycin, Ceftriaxone, Doxycycline, and Penicillin. However, due to the fever and flu-like symptoms upon initial infection, the disease is often misdiagnosed, often delaying proper treatment.