Leptospirosis Fact Sheet

This page contains a fact sheet on Leptospirosis.

Page last updated: 22 October 2021

PDF printable version of Leptospirosis Factsheet (PDF 111 KB)

Contents:


What is leptospirosis?

  • Leptospirosis is a rare, bacterial disease that affects animals and humans.
  • It is caused by the Leptospira bacteria that can be spread through the urine of infected animals such as mice, rats, cattle and marsupials.

How is it spread?

  • The most common way people become sick with leptospirosis is from:
    • contact with urine or tissues of infected animals
    • contact with water, agricultural vegetation, soil, or mud contaminated with infected urine.
  • Leptospira bacteria can enter the body through broken skin, or through the lining in the mouth, eyes and nose by exposure to water, soil or mud contaminated with the urine of infected animals. It is possible for people to become sick after:
    • not thoroughly washing their hands
    • wading through or swimming in contaminated water
    • drinking or eating contaminated water/food sources
    • breathing in dried urine particles in the air excreted by cattle or mice and rats
    • agricultural work with animals, sugar cane, bananas and other fruit.
  • In Australia, leptospirosis outbreaks frequently occur in the summer months and after heavy rainfall and flooding. Leptospira bacteria can survive in soil and freshwater for weeks to months.
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What are the symptoms?

  • People with leptospirosis can have a wide range of flu-like or gastrointestinal symptoms which can make diagnosis difficult.
  • Common symptoms include:
    • flu-like symptoms – such as fever, chills, headaches, muscle aches
    • red eyes
    • stomach pain
    • vomiting
    • diarrhoea
    • cough
    • yellowing of the skin and eyes
    • skin rash.
  • Some people may have no symptoms at all.
  • In rare situations, untreated leptospirosis may cause severe complications such as, kidney damage, liver failure or meningitis (inflammation of the fluid and membranes around the brain and spinal cord).
  • People with severe disease may require hospitalisation and in some situations an infection may even lead to death.
  • After a person is exposed, symptoms usually start within 5 to 14 days, although symptoms may develop anywhere from 2 to 30 days after exposure.
  • The illness generally lasts from a few days to three weeks but may occasionally last longer.
  • Direct transmission from person to person is rare.

Who is at risk?

  • Leptospirosis occurs worldwide, but in Australia it is more common in warmer or tropical climates such as Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales.
  • In Australia, most infections occur in people who work closely with animals or in jobs working outdoors. People in these jobs may come into contact with water, vegetation, soil or mud that is contaminated by infected urine.
  • People working in outdoor, agricultural jobs have the highest risk of infection. These include farmers (especially dairy, sugar cane and banana farmers, and fruit pickers), veterinarians, abattoir workers, fish workers and sewage labourers.
  • People can also become sick after swimming, wading, washing or participating in water sports in contaminated waterways. Bushwalking and camping in areas near contaminated rivers and marshy areas also pose a risk.
  • Outbreaks often occur in Australia following rodent plagues and weather events such tropical cyclones, heavy rainfall, or flood events. Leptospira bacteria can survive in soil and freshwater for many weeks, extreme weather events can resurface these bacteria particularly in flood waters. People can become sick by wading through flood waters, drinking, or washing in unsafe tap water, or consuming contaminated food and other water sources affected by flooding.
  • Other sources of infection include overseas travel to countries where leptospirosis infections are common, particularly where travellers participate in activities associated with rivers and marshy areas.

How is it prevented?

  • Be aware of how you might get sick, avoid situations that put you at risk of becoming sick and protect yourself by following safety precautions.
  • There is no available human vaccination against leptospirosis, however vaccinations are available for dogs, cattle, and pigs.

The general public:

  • Avoid contact with contaminated water sources. Avoid swimming, wading and washing in flood water or unsafe water. This will also prevent other serious tropical infections.
  • Check your skin and cover any cuts or wounds with waterproof dressings, and wear appropriate protective clothing and footwear, before engaging in recreational outdoor activities such as bushwalking or water sports and before working in outdoor environments where your skin may be scratched or broken.
  • Shower thoroughly after contact with contaminated water, soil or mud.
  • Use gloves when gardening to avoid contact with soil and mud.
  • Follow regular hand washing practices. Wash your hands with soap and water and ensure they are dry before eating and drinking, or smoking.
  • Control mice and rats by removing rubbish and food waste or sources that are close to housing. Within the home store food in sealed containers, throw out food scraps (including pet food), discard food or drink that may have had contact with mice or rats, and seal any potential access points into the home.
  • If disposing of dead mice and rats wear protective clothing (gloves, goggles, closed-toe shoes), disinfect the areas where the mice and rats have been, and wash your hands with soap and water. Ensure food and drinking water are not contaminated by mice or rat urine.
  • Do not feed dogs raw offal or feral meat because this may make them sick.

If you work with animals or in agricultural industries:

  • Check your skin and any cover any cuts or wounds with waterproof dressings.
  • Wear personal protective equipment if required for your job (this includes protective clothing, waterproof gloves, safety goggles, shields, aprons, and protective footwear) and ensure it is well fitted. Protective clothing is very important when working with closely animals, especially where you may encounter animal urine or handle animals and birth tissues.
  • Follow regular hand washing practices. Wash your hands with soap and water and ensure they are dry before eating and drinking, or smoking.
  • Ensure you shower after working with or handling animals or infected materials.
  • Vaccinate cattle, pigs and dogs against Leptospira where available.
  • Ensure farms maintain good on-farm biosecurity practices to reduce and control mice and rat numbers and environmental contamination. If disposing of dead mice and rats wear protective clothing, disinfect the areas where the mice and rats have been, and wash your hands with soap and water. Ensure food and drinking water are not contaminated by mice or rat urine.

How is it diagnosed?

  • Leptospirosis is generally diagnosed by a blood test. Two blood tests may be required to confirm a diagnosis which will be taken at two points in time.
  • Leptospira bacteria can be detected in urine and sometimes in spinal fluid (fluid in the lining of the spinal cord).
  • If you become sick after having contact with animals, animal urine or contaminated water, soil or mud, tell you doctor to help them with your diagnosis.

How is it treated?

  • Leptospirosis is commonly treated with antibiotics.
  • Your doctor may advise starting antibiotics prior to being diagnosed with leptospirosis to effectively treat the disease. See your doctor as soon as possible if you are sick or believe you have been in a high risk setting for leptospirosis, any treatment delays can increase the likelihood of developing serious complications.
  • It is possible for people to spontaneously recover without treatment.

Further Information

Speak to your doctor if you are concerned about your health.

More information on leptospirosis can be found by contacting your state or territory health department.

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