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Leptospirosis is a type of bacterial infection that is spread by animals. It is a zoonotic condition, which means it is spread to humans by animals and it is caused by a strain of bacteria called leptospira. The bacteria live inside the animal’s kidneys and can be passed out in their urine. Bacteria passed into soil or water can survive for several weeks or even months. Humans can become infected by the leptospira bacteria by drinking or touching water contaminated with the urine of wild animals that have become infected, or if contaminated water or soil comes into contact with your eyes, mouth, nose or any unhealed cuts in the skin. Less commonly, the infection can be passed on to humans who come into close physical contact with the blood of an infected animal.

Human cases of leptospirosis are rare, but occasional outbreaks can occur, particularly at events that involve close contact with infected water sources, such as competitive freshwater swimming. It is also possible for a person to become infected after a natural disaster, such as a flood. Human to human transmission of infection is rare.

There are two main types of leptospirosis infection:

  • Mild leptospirosis is where a person develops flu-like symptoms, such as headache, chills and muscle pain and is the most common type.
  • Severe leptospirosis is where a person goes  on to develop severe, sometimes life-threatening symptoms, including organ      failure and internal bleeding. This is caused by the bacteria infecting  major organs, such as the liver and kidneys.

Animals known to be carriers of the leptospira bacteria include rodents, rats and mice, dogs, cattle, horses, pigs, sheep and bats. Once a young animal is infected, they shed the bacteria in their urine for the rest of their life. Most animals have no symptoms, but up to 1 in 10 infected dogs die from the disease.

In England, death rates for people with severe leptospirosis are much lower than in other parts of the world. In 2009, there were only three deaths as a result of leptospirosis. Mild leptospirosis responds very well to treatment with antibiotics and most people will make a full recovery within a week. Most people with severe leptospirosis will require admission to hospital so the functions of their body can be supported while the underlying infection is treated with injections of antibiotics.

The symptoms of leptospirosis usually develop abruptly 7 to 14 days after exposure to the leptospira bacteria. However, it is possible for symptoms to develop from 3 days to 30 days after exposure and can include a fever, chills, nausea, sudden headaches, vomiting, loss of appetite, cough, sore throat, muscle pain, skin pain and irritation of the eyes.

The symptoms of mild leptospirosis usually resolve within five to seven days. However, a small number of people will go on to experience a further phase of more serious symptoms, known as severe leptospirosis, which affects the liver, kidneys and heart and this is known as Weil’s disease. The brain and lungs can also become infected and if left untreated, can be fatal.

As in the case of any illnesses, if you feel unwell or suspect you may have contracted leptospirosis seek medical attention as soon as possible.

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