Australia: Leptospirosis outbreak reported in Queensland

The number of leptospirosis cases reported in Queensland in 2021 has nearly doubled compared to the same period last year, health officials report.

Queensland reported 78 cases of leptospirosis statewide, compared to 41 cases at the same time last year. That’s a 70 percent increase over the five-year average.

There were 81 cases in 2020 and 56 cases in 2019.

Queensland health spokesman Professor Keith McNeil said leptospirosis is caused by the bacterium Leptospira, which is found in the urine of infected animals, including rats, mice, cattle, pigs and dogs.

“Leptospirosis is a disease that is most common in tropical and subtropical areas such as northern Queensland and has the potential to cause serious illness,” Professor McNeil said.

“Cases tend to increase in the warmer months because of the corresponding wet season.”

The bacteria can enter the body through cuts and abrasions on the skin or through the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and eyes through contact with water, soil or dirt contaminated by the urine of infected animals.”

“Agricultural workers, such as those who work with animals or workers on cane or banana farms, are most at risk, but the disease can also be caused by drinking or bathing in streams, rivers or lakes contaminated with urine from infected animals. Waters affected by heavy rain or flooding are especially dangerous.

“This means that people who are camping, gardening, bushwalking and water sports may also be at risk of infection because they may come in contact with contaminated water, soil or mud during these activities.”

“There are many different strains of the Leptospira bacteria, so you can get leptospirosis several times,” he said.

Professor McNeil said the increase in cases coincided with an increase in rodent activity and flooding this year, with Cairns, Hinterland and Darling Downs seeing a marked increase in cases compared to the same time last year.

“As the wet season ends and we enter a cooler dry season, we expect to see fewer cases of leptospirosis, based on trends from the previous year,” he said.

Professor McNeil said symptoms of leptospirosis can include fever, severe headache, muscle aches, chills, vomiting and red eyes and usually develop five to four days after infection.

“Symptoms can be similar to the flu, so it can often be difficult to recognize and can be mistaken for other diseases.”

Although leptospirosis is treatable with antibiotics, early diagnosis remains key.”

“Serious illnesses such as meningitis, kidney failure, bleeding and respiratory complications can develop from leptospirosis infection if it is not treated in a timely manner, so it is important to see a doctor immediately if you suspect you have been exposed to contaminated water, soil or dirt and you develop these symptoms within a week or two,” he said.

Professor McNeil said there are several steps people can take to protect themselves from infection.

“If you work with animals, be sure to cover cuts and abrasions with waterproof bandages, wear protective clothing such as gloves and boots, shower after work, wash and dry your hands frequently, and don’t eat or smoke while working with animals,” he said.

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