What is leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis is a disease caused by the bacteria Leptospira. The disease is spread through contact with water, soil or food contaminated by urine from infected animals.
What is my risk?
The risk is low for most travellers, but is higher for travellers who:
- visit tropical areas where leptospirosis transmission is more common
- participate in fresh water activities such as rafting, canoeing or swimming in streams, rivers, ponds or lakes, particularly following periods of heavy rainfall or flooding
- work outdoors or with animals, such as farmers, veterinarians, military personnel, etc.
How is it transmitted?
- Leptospirosis is carried by many wild and domestic animals, including rodents, dogs, cows, pigs, horses, sheep and goats.
- Rodents are the main carriers, especially rats. When infected animals urinate, the leptospirosis bacteria are passed into the soil or nearby water.
- People get leptospirosis when they come into contact with the bacteria, for example through contact with soil or water that is contaminated with the urine of infected animals. The bacteria enter through the skin, usually cuts or scratches, or through the nose, mouth, or eyes.
- It can also be spread by drinking water or eating foods that are contaminated with the bacteria.
- People who work with animals may become infected through direct exposure to the animals.
- Symptoms can appear 2 days to 3 weeks after contact with the bacteria.
- Common symptoms may include fever, headache, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain, skin rash and eye infection.
- In more severe cases, symptoms may worsen to include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), kidney and/or liver failure, inflammation of the heart muscle and meningitis. The severe form of leptospirosis is known as Weil's disease.
Can leptospirosis be treated?
Antibiotics can be administered to reduce the length and severity of infection.
Where is leptospirosis a concern?
- Leptospirosis occurs worldwide. It is most common in tropical countries but is also found in temperate regions. Outbreaks can occur after heavy rainfall or flooding.
Consult a health care provider or visit a travel health clinic preferably six weeks before you travel.
1. Take precautions to avoid exposure to water that may be contaminated
- Avoid swimming or bathing in:
- polluted or contaminated waters in areas where leptospirosis outbreaks are known to occur
- flood waters
- Cover cuts, wounds and scrapes with water-tight dressings or bandages before entering the water.
- Always practise safe water precautions.
- Wear clothing and footwear that protect you when walking or working in water or wet soil.
- If your job puts you at greater risk, wear appropriate protective gear such as goggles, gloves and boots.
2. Practise personal hygiene and wash your hands frequently
- Wash your hands with soap under warm running water for at least 20 seconds, as often as possible. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. It’s a good idea to always keep some with you when you travel.
3. Avoid contact with wild and domestic animals, particularly rodents
- Make sure that garbage is removed from campsites and dwellings.
- Avoid accommodations where rodents can get in.
4. Discuss the benefits of taking preventive medication (pre-exposure prophylaxis) with a health care professional before departure
- Travellers at high risk of exposure include humanitarian workers, veterinarians, farmers, etc.
- No medication is 100% effective in preventing the disease.
- There is no vaccine licensed for use in Canada.
5. Monitor your health
- If you develop symptoms similar to leptospirosis when you are travelling or after you return, see a health care provider and tell them where you have been travelling or living.
- Fact Sheet: Leptospirosis, World Health Organization (WHO)