Leptospirosis fact sheet
What is Leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis is an illness spread from animals to humans caused by Leptospira bacteria.
Leptospira bacteria are found in the urine and body tissues of infected animals. There is a large number of different types, and some of these can cause illness in humans.
Leptospirosis occurs around the world, most commonly in in tropical and sub-tropical areas.
In Australia, most cases occur in northern Queensland. In Tasmania, Leptospirosis is much less common and tends to affect people who work with animals.
What are the symptoms?
People with leptospirosis often have:
- Muscle aches and pains
- Vomiting and nausea
- Abdominal pain
- Tiredness and lethargy
- Joint pain.
Symptoms can last from a few days to a few weeks.
Occasionally, leptospirosis causes more severe illness, including:
- Kidney and liver failure
- Yellow skin and eyes (known as jaundice)
- Breathing difficulties
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Bleeding problems – into the skin and mucous membranes (including gums and eyes)
- Meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord).
Severe leptospirosis can sometimes be fatal.
How is it spread?
Many animals may carry the Leptospira bacteria without showing symptoms.
In Australia, this includes livestock (cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, deer), pets (dogs, cats, horses), wildlife (possum, platypus), and rodents.
It is carried in the urine of infected animals. The bacteria can remain in soil, mud and water contaminated by the urine of infected animals.
In Tasmania, the most common source of infection is from working with cattle, especially on dairy farms. In warmer climates exposure to contaminated water is a common source of infection.
How do you catch Leptospirosis?
Directly through animal contact or indirectly through contaminated soil and water. The Leptospira bacteria enters the body through three main ways:
- Directly through skin – if an open wound contacts animal urine, or water and soil contaminated with animal urine
- Eating or drinking contaminated food or drinks or eating with contaminated hands
- Breathing in dust that is contaminated with the leptospirosis bacteria.
It is rare for people to transmit Leptospirosis to other people.
Who is at risk?
People who have contact with infected animals or soil/water where the bacteria are present.
Occupations at-risk include farmers (especially dairy farmers), veterinarians, abattoir workers.
Higher-risk activities include swimming in creeks and rivers, water sports, camping, and gardening, especially in warmer climates.
How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor can diagnose leptospirosis through clinical examination and a blood test. Often, it requires two blood tests that are taken more than a fortnight apart to confirm the diagnosis.
How is it treated?
Antibiotics are effective in treating leptospirosis. If given early in the illness, they can prevent the development of severe disease. Severe infections may require treatment in hospital.
How is it prevented?
There is no vaccine for preventing leptospirosis in people, but animal vaccines are available.
General measures to avoid leptospirosis include:
- Wear appropriate footwear when walking in mud or moist soil.
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water before preparing food, eating, drinking, or smoking.
- Avoid contact with animal urine, and water or soil which may be contaminated with animal urine, e.g. swimming in dams downslope from livestock.
- Cover wounds and abrasions with a waterproof dressing if in contact with animal urine, contaminated water or soil.
- Use gloves when gardening.
- Control rats or mice around living areas and livestock feed/fodder storages.
- Seek medical attention if you, your family, or your staff become unwell.
Special measures for people that work with livestock or animals:
- Keep your animals healthy and away from likely infection sources if possible, such as bodies of water that may be contaminated by neighbouring or upstream livestock.
- Talk to your veterinarian about vaccinating cattle, pigs and dogs.
- When contact with animal urine or birth products is possible, or working with potentially infected animals, wear protective equipment such as boots, aprons, goggles and gloves.
- Talk to your doctor on how you can reduce the risk of diseases transmitted from animals to humans in your particular situation.
What should I do if I think I have leptospirosis?
If you think you have leptospirosis, please see your doctor and explain your concern.
Call the Public Health Hotline - Tasmania on 1800 671 738 to speak to a clinical nurse consultant.