Leptospirosis warning

Leptospirosis (or ‘Lepto’), a fever-causing illness associated with the wet season and flooding, is on the rise in the Top End.

Public Health Registrar from the Centre for Disease Control, Dr Damien Brown, said that nine cases have been confirmed among cattle workers since January in the Daly River and rural Darwin region - almost double the number of last year’s total cases.

“Leptospirosis is known to affect cattle and farm workers, and is particularly common after heavy rains. Anyone with a fever, muscle aches and headache – especially in the absence of cold-like symptoms like a runny nose - is urged to see a doctor for further assessment and testing,” Dr Brown said.

“The disease is easily treated with oral antibiotics if caught early, but left untreated can progress to a severe and sometimes fatal illness.”

The illness is caused by a bacteria that’s found in animals such as pigs, cattle, rats, dogs, and possums, and spread by their infected urine. Humans become infected when we come into contact with contaminated water, wet soil or animals or their tissue – hence the other names ‘cane cutter’s fever’ and ‘mud fever’.

The bacteria usually enter through cuts or grazes, or splashes to the eye or contact with the inside of the mouth. Symptoms occur after about 10 days (but may be 4 – 19 days after exposure), and the illness lasts around 3 weeks.

Initial symptoms include a sudden fever with headaches, chills, severe muscle pain (particularly in the legs) and reddened eyes. Cough, diarrhoea and vomiting can also occur. Some people go on to develop more severe disease including jaundice (yellow skin or eyes), bleeding, breathing difficulties and confusion, and in rare cases this can be fatal. Most however have mild symptoms that resolve without complications, or have no symptoms at all.

People at risk are those who have close contact with animals or who are exposed to water, mud or soil that has been contaminated – particularly people working in abattoirs or on stations, and vets.

Camping, hunting and gardening are also risk factors.

“Prompt treatment with antibiotics as early as possible in the illness is essential.. Appropriate testing will confirm the illness and can also help us prevent further clusters of cases. There is no human vaccination against leptospirosis. Prevention, alongside early diagnosis and treatment, is therefore key,” Dr Brown said.

To reduce your chances of getting infected:

  • cover all cuts or abrasions with waterproof dressings
  • wear gloves, eye shields, aprons and boots at all times when handling animals or liquids contaminated with the urine of animals
  • thoroughly wash hands and arms in soapy water after handling animals or carcasses, or after coming into contact with liquids that may be contaminated
  • shower thoroughly after contact with potentially contaminated water or soil
  • avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes when handling animals that may be infected. Wash and dry hands prior to smoking or eating
  • avoid swimming or wading in water that may be contaminated
  • keep working dogs out of the house yard to prevent contamination with urine
  • control rodents by removing rubbish and food sourced from close to housing
  • do not feed dogs raw offal or feral meat as this may infect them.

The bottom line: prevention is best. And if you do develop a fever, see your local clinic early to request a test and appropriate treatment. Visit below for more info:

https://nt.gov.au/wellbeing/health-conditions-treatments/bacterial/leptospirosis

Last updated: 01 March 2021

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