Any infection with the leptospira bacterium is called ‘leptospirosis’. In a small number of rare cases, the infection causes serious damage to the body organs and jaundice. This severe form of the infection is called ‘Weils Disease’ after the doctor who first identified it. Tens of thousands of people contract the infection every year, and most recover completely with treatment. If untreated, the patient MAY recover, though if the infection is serious the patient may not survive the organ damage caused by the bacteria. The onset of symptoms is rapid, and in severe cases decline is equally rapid therefore all patients should be identified and treated as soon as physically possible.
An infection of leptospirosis resembles a cold or influenza infection in the initial stages. The incubation period is from 4 to 10 days, depending on the method of infection and your susceptibility. Not all exposed persons catch the disease.
- Early symptoms are fever, chills, muscular aches and pains, loss of appetite, and nausea when lying down. These can easily be mistaken for influenza, menengitis or the classic physician’s excuse, ‘FUO’ or Fever of Unknown Origin.
- Later symptoms include bruising of the skin, anaemia, sore eyes, nose bleeds and jaundice. The fever lasts for approximately five days, then a significant deterioration follows.
Symptoms vary from case to case, and with underlying medical condition. Often, exposure to leptospira is combined with exposure to other waterborne organisms and symptoms of other infections may also exist. The initial appearance of a fever is reliable and anyone experiencing a fever after exposure to high risk water should assume they have contracted the infection until proved otherwise.
If you show any of the above symptoms after exposure to high risk areas, it is extremely important to contact your doctor as soon as possible. You should always tell your doctor that you suspect Leptospira infection, as many general practitioners do not associate fever-related symptoms to the infection without a helpful hint. If you miss or ignore the early symptoms and start seeing the later and more serious indications of the disease then it is advised that you present yourself directly to a hospital accident and emergency department, again stating that you suspect you have leptospirosis. The later symptoms are the result of serious damage to the organs of the body and require urgent treatment with antibiotics not usually available outside a hospital.
There are over 200 ‘serovars’ of Leptospira bacterium that can cause the disease, and an infection from one strain will provide immunity but only to that strain. Exposure to other strains will still cause infection. It is usual for more than one strain to exist within a specific population of infected animals, so immunity to one type is no great advantage to reducing your risks
Treatment with antibiotics is only effective if started rapidly after symptoms develop.
The antibiotics of choice are only available via hospital doctors.
Kidney dialysis may be necessary in some cases.