The deluge of August 29 in Mumbai left several people to wade through waist-deep water to get to dry ground in the city. Understandably, concerns of catching water borne and skin-related diseases has greatly risen as result of treading through contaminated water. The most common being – leptospirosis. As with any disease the Internet is full with information and misinformation about the disease. BOOM explains what leptospirosis is all about and whether you can pop a pill as a precaution against it.
What is leptospirosis?
It is a type of bacterial disease that affects humans and animals. It’s caused by a strain of bacteria called ‘leptospira’.
Humans catch it by coming in contact with soil or water contaminated with the urine of wild animals infected with the leptospira bacteria. Cattle, horses, pigs, dogs, rodents and particularly rats are known to be carriers of the leptospira bacteria. The disease occurs worldwide, but is most common in temperate or tropical climates.
How does one catch it?
Infected animals show no symptoms. However, their excrement which contains the bacteria is where the problem lies. Humans get infected through contact with urine (or other body fluids, except saliva) from infected animals or through contact with water, soil or food contaminated with the urine of infected animals.
The bacteria can enter the body through skin especially if the skin is broken from a cut or scratch or through the eyes, nose or mouth. Drinking contaminated water can also cause infection. Exposure to contaminated water, such as floodwaters is common cause for a leptospirosis outbreak.
Is it contagious?
Person to person transmission is extremely rare.
What are the symptoms?
It is possible for symptoms to develop from between 2 and 30 days after exposure to contaminated water. The illness usually begins with fever and other symptoms. Leptospirosis may occur in two phases, the second being more severe. A wide range of symptoms include:
- High fever
- Muscle aches (particularly affecting the muscles in the calves and lower back)
- Red eyes
- Abdominal pain
- A short-lived rash
Usually these symptoms usually resolve within five to seven days. However, the patient may recover for a time but may become ill again.
The second phase of leptospirosis
This phase is also called Weil’s disease. The symptoms usually develop one to three days after the more mild symptoms have passed. A severe infection may affect organs, including the brain, liver, kidneys, heart and lungs. It is life threatening if left untreated.
Leptospirosis and pregnancy
Pregnant women should admit themselves to a hospital to be monitored even if they show mild symptoms. It is difficult to ascertain how a leptospirosis infection will affect pregnancy though in some cases it could be fatal for the unborn child.
Farmers, agricultural workers working in wet fields, sewer workers, slaughterhouse workers, veterinarians, dairy farmers, and soldiers serving in areas where an outbreak has occurred are at high risk.
What is the treatment for leptospirosis?
Most cases of leptospirosis are mild and treated with a five to seven day course of antibiotic tablets. It is important to complete the entire course even if you feel better. This is to ensure that all bacteria are killed thus preventing the infection from returning. Penicillin or a tetracycline antibiotic called doxycycline are preferred choices. You will need to be admitted to hospital if you develop a more severe leptospirosis infection.
How can it be prevented?
The risk of catching the infection is greatly reduced by not swimming or wading in water that might be contaminated with animal urine. If unavoidable, protective clothing and footwear should be used.
Can one pop pills to prevent it?
While social media is rife with medical advice on how to keep leptospirosis at bay including take Doxycycline, self medication is strongly advised against.
those who waded thru clogged rain water, a single dose of Tab. Doxycycline 200 mg OR Tab. Azithromycin 500 mg
prevention for Leptospirosis
— Shankar Mahadevan (@Shankar_Live) August 29, 2017
This is because an ordinary person who actually might have the infection cannot judge the duration of the antibiotic course she or he might require. Your best course of action is to see a doctor that is familiar with your medical history and can prescribe drugs that are suitable for you.
Do NOT blindly take Doxycycline or Azithromycin or get a tetanus shot. Get seen by a doctor for risk assessment first. #PSA
— Ranjit (@qtfan) August 30, 2017
According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service ‘antibiotics can sometimes be taken as a precaution against becoming infected. But there is limited evidence this works for leptospirosis’ and treatment is reserved for high risk groups.
(With inputs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UK’s National Health Service)