Skip links and keyboard navigation

Queensland experiences spike in leptospirosis cases

Queensland has experienced a spike in cases of the bacterial disease leptospirosis - with numbers almost doubling in 2021 compared to this time last year.

To date this year*, Queensland has recorded 78 cases of leptospirosis across the state compared to 41 cases at the same time last year. This is a 70 per cent increase compared with the five-year mean (year to date).

In 2020, a total of 81 cases were recorded, and 56 cases in 2019.

Queensland Health spokesperson Professor Keith McNeil said leptospirosis is caused by Leptospira bacteria, which is found in urine from infected animals including rats, mice, cattle, pigs and dogs.

“Leptospirosis is a notifiable condition that is most common in tropical and subtropical areas like northern Queensland and it can potentially cause serious illness,” Professor McNeil said.

“Cases tend to increase in the warmer months due to the corresponding wet season.

“The bacteria can enter the body through skin cuts or abrasions or through the lining of the mouth, nose, and eyes by exposure to water, soil or mud contaminated with the urine from infected animals.

“Agriculture workers are most at risk such as those working with animals or cane or banana farm workers, but it can also be caused by drinking or swimming in creeks, rivers or lakes contaminated by the urine of infected animals. Water affected by heavy rain or flooding are especially risky.

“That means people who participate in camping, gardening, bushwalking and water sport pursuits can also be at risk of infection as they may have contact with contaminated water, soil or mud during these activities.

“There are many different strains of the Leptospira bacteria, so it’s possible to be infected with leptospirosis multiple times,” he said.

Professor McNeil said the rise in cases has coincided with an increase in rodent activity and flooding events this year, with a marked increase in cases compared to the same time last year in Cairns and Hinterland and Darling Downs regions.

“As the wet season ends and we move into the cooler dry season, we would expect to see less cases of leptospirosis based on previous year trends,” he said.

Professor McNeil said symptoms of leptospirosis may include fever, severe headache, muscle aches, chills, vomiting, and red eyes, and usually develop after five to 14 days following infection.

“Symptoms can be similar to the flu so often it can be difficult to recognise and can be mistaken for other diseases.

“While leptospirosis is treatable with antibiotics, early diagnosis is still the key.

“Serious disease such as meningitis, kidney failure, bleeding and respiratory complications can develop from leptospirosis infection if it’s not treated promptly, so it’s important to see your doctor immediately if you suspect you have had exposure to contaminated water, soil or mud, and develop these symptoms within a week or two,” he said.

Professor McNeil said there were several measures people can take to protect themselves from infection.

“If you work with animals, make sure you cover cuts and abrasions with waterproof dressing, wear protective clothing such as gloves and boots, shower after work, wash and dry hands frequently, and do not eat or smoke when handling animals,” he said.

Other safety tips to reduce the risk of leptospirosis:

  • Practice good hand hygiene and wash hands with soap properly and regularly, especially before eating or drinking
  • People should treat or boil water especially if collecting from a source that could be contaminated by floodwater runoff
  • Avoid swimming or wading in water where there is a chance of contamination with animal urine or floodwater runoff
  • Cover cuts and abrasions with waterproof dressings, especially before coming into contact with soil, mud or water that may be contaminated with animal urine
  • Wear protective footwear outdoors, especially when walking in mud or moist soil. Avoid walking barefoot on muddy surfaces or in muddy water, particularly if you have cuts or abrasions on your feet or legs.
  • Wear gloves when gardening
  • Control rodents by cleaning up rubbish and removing food sources that are close to housing and thoroughly clean any areas where rodents have been.

Leptospirosis cases in Queensland 2019-2021 include:

Hospital and Health Service

2021 (January to May 9)

2020 (January to May 9)

2020 (January 1 to December 31)

2019 (January 1 to December 31)

Statewide

78

41

81

56

Cairns & Hinterland

39

27

56

26

Townsville

7

1

3

7

Darling Downs

12

1

3

1

Metro North

3

0

2

5

Metro South

5

1

1

0

Sunshine Coast

3

2

3

8


Source: Queensland Health Notifiable Conditions Annual Reporting

*All data is as at 09 May 2021.

ENDS

Media contact: 3708 5376

Last updated: 13 May 2021