Skip links and keyboard navigation

What is leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals. It is caused by bacteria of the genus Leptospira. In humans, it causes a wide range of symptoms, and some infected persons may have no symptoms at all. Symptoms of leptospirosis include:

  • high fever
  • severe headache
  • chills
  • muscle aches, and
  • vomiting.

Symptoms may also include jaundice, red eyes, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, or a rash. Many of these symptoms can be mistaken for other diseases.

If the disease is not treated, the patient could develop kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, and respiratory distress. The illness lasts from a few days to 3 weeks or longer and is treated with antibiotics. In rare cases, death occurs.

Where does leptospirosis occur?

Leptospirosis occurs worldwide but is most common in temperate or tropical climates. It is an occupational hazard for many people who work outdoors or with animals including: farmers, veterinarians, meat workers, dairy farmers, and military personnel. It is a recreational hazard for campers, or those who participate in outdoor sports in contaminated areas, and has been associated with swimming, wading, and white water rafting.

Outbreaks of leptospirosis are usually caused by exposure to water contaminated with the urine of infected animals. Many different kinds of animals carry the bacterium; they may become sick but sometimes have no symptoms. Leptospira organisms have been found in cattle, pigs, horses, dogs, rodents, and wild animals, including marine mammals. Humans become infected through contact with water, food, or soil containing urine from these infected animals. This may happen by swallowing contaminated food or water or through skin contact, especially with mucosal surfaces such as the eyes or nose, or with broken skin.

Leptospira serovars

Show all

  • This organism is found world-wide in rats and mice. In 1998, Arborea was first diagnosed in a patient in Northern New South Wales and, in the same year, routine cultures from mice and rats in the Brisbane area were positive for Arborea.

    Arborea is now widespread throughout Queensland and northern New South Wales with human cases also recorded from Victoria and with animal cases (dogs) as far a field as Western Australia. It seems to affect mainly those who are involved in agricultural industries and areas where there is close contact with introduced species of mice and rats (especially Mus domesticus and Rattus rattus).

  • This organism was one of the serovars associated with “cane-cutters’ disease”. It is found from Sarina to Cape York, predominantly in coastal areas. The main carriers are rats and small marsupials. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of one of these animals.

    Australis is one of the most common serovars found in tropical Australia, with a number of cases reported each year. Recent studies suggest that it may occur across the wet tropics of Australia into the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

  • This organism was originally found in Indonesia in 1925 and has since been isolated throughout South-East Asia. Bataviae has not been demonstrated in humans or animals in Australia. Overseas travellers have arrived in Australia with infections caused by this serovar and returning Australian travellers are also at risk as is shown in the latest data.

  • This organism is sporadically found in some areas of Queensland and New South Wales with most cases found in southern Queensland. The main carrier is probably the rat, although there has been little research into this organism in Australia. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of an infected animal.

    Bulgarica is one of the rarest leptospiral serovars found in Australia, with only occasional cases reported.

  • This organism is found in coastal areas of North Queensland from Cardwell to Cape York, with the main focus in the vicinity of Cooktown. Under the heading Canicola, any one of three leptospiral serovars may be detected by serology—these being Canicola, Broomi and Bindjei. Conclusive identification can only be attained by isolation of the organism from the blood or urine of the infected person.

    All 3 serovars cause similar disease symptoms and have common hosts. Rainforest animals such as rats and bandicoots are the main carriers. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of one of these animals. The Canicola group is reasonably uncommon with less than 5 cases detected each year.

  • This organism has a limited range of coastal areas around Innisfail and some areas of the Atherton Tablelands. Rainforest animals such as bandicoots and rats are the main carriers and recent studies have isolated this organism from dairy cattle. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of one of these animals.

    Celledoni is one of the less common leptospiral serovars in Australia.

  • This organism can cause classic 'Weil’s disease' and is found throughout Australia. The normal hosts are the introduced black or brown rats, although some Australian rodents and small marsupials may be carriers. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of one of these animals. Copenhageni is a fairly widespread leptospiral serovar with a number of cases reported throughout Australia each year.

    Under the heading Copenhageni, 2 leptospiral serovars may be detected by serology—these being Copenhageni and Mankarso. Serovar Mankarso is isolated to tropical Queensland, north of Mossman and little is known about the hosts of this serovar.

  • This organism originated in Indonesia and although it has not been isolated from humans or animals in Australia, it has been demonstrated by serology in Queensland and the Northern Territory in the past. Recent serological studies in flying foxes have suggested that the organism may also exist in these animals.

  • This organism was originally found in Indonesia and is found throughout South-East Asia. It has not been isolated from humans or animals in Australia; however several cases have been found in Australian/overseas tourists returning or visiting from South-East Asia.

  • This organism is normally found in the wet tropical regions of Australia. Small pockets have been found in South East Queensland, and as far south as Grafton in New South Wales. Rats, small marsupials and feral pigs are the normal carriers, but overseas studies have shown it can become adapted to cattle, which may explain cases in southern regions. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of one of the above animals.

    Grippotyphosa occurs sporadically with less than 5 cases detected each year.

  • This organism is found throughout most areas of Australia and most parts of the world. The main carriers are cattle, both dairy and meat producing. Probable sources of infection include direct contact with urine from infected animals or contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of cattle.

  • This organism was originally found in Indonesia and members of the group occur in Malaysia, India and China. This serovar has been found serologically in 4 cases in Australia. All cases have been travellers returning from South-East Asia.

  • This organism is mainly found in North Queensland coastal areas around Innisfail. Rainforest animals such as rats and bandicoots are the main carriers. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of one of these animals.

    Over the past decade, Kremastos cases have increased in number but there are usually less than 10 notifications per year.

  • Prior to the introduction of Hardjo into Australia in the 1960s, this organism was regularly demonstrated by isolation or serology from animals and humans in North Queensland. Since that introduction, Medanensis cases have been infrequent with a few serological demonstrations and no positive cultures.

  • This organism was originally found in Central America and has not been isolated in humans or animals in Australia, however, there have been two cases in Queensland in consecutive years with notifiable serology.

  • This organism is found throughout Australia. The main carriers are domestic and feral pigs, although cattle and sheep are occasional carriers. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of one of these animals.

  • This organism is mainly found in coastal areas of north Queensland between Townsville and Cairns. Rainforest animals such as bandicoots, rats and feral pigs are the main carriers. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of one of these animals.

    Robinsoni has been implicated as a cause of pulmonary haemorrhage and late diagnosis treatment can lead to severe medical complications.

  • This organism was originally found in Central America and more recently other members of the group have been found in Indonesia and India. To date this organism has not been demonstrated in humans or animals in Australia.

  • This organism is restricted to the coastal areas of North Queensland between Cardwell and Cairns. Rainforest animals such as bandicoots and rats are the main carriers. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of one of these animals.

    Szwajizak is one of the less common leptospiral serovars occurring in Australia with normally less than 10 cases per year reported.

  • This organism occurs throughout Australia. In Queensland there is also a closely related species called L. bakeri which would be detected by current testing and reported as L. tarassovi. The main carriers are domestic pigs and cattle.

    L. bakeri is carried by rats and small marsupials which inhabit rain forest areas north of Townsville. Recent research suggests that dairy cattle near such areas would also be carriers. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of one of these animals.

    Tarrasovi and Bakeri are two of the less common leptospiral serovars occurring in Australia.

  • This organism was first isolated from a human in North Queensland in 1990. Since then, Topaz has been isolated from cattle and bandicoots and there is serological evidence that serovar Topaz can be found in kangaroos. The majority of cases originate from North Queensland and the South-East corner of Queensland; however cases have also been notified in Western Australia and New South Wales.

    Topaz has demonstrated a steady increase in cases since 2003.

  • This organism was one of the serovars associated with "cane-cutters’ disease". It is found mainly from Mackay to Cape York in coastal and tableland areas. The main carriers are rats and small marsupials (mainly bandicoots). Zanoni has been demonstrated in dairy cattle and many dairy workers have been infected. Probable sources of infection include contact with soil, water or other materials contaminated with the urine of one of the above animals.

    Zanoni is a very common serovar in North Queensland with many cases reported each year. Occasional cases have been reported from South East Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Leptospirosis Reference Laboratory

Email megan.staples@health.qld.gov.au
Phone +61 7 3096 2818
Fax 
61 7 3096 2973
Post PO Box 594, Archerfield Qld 4108
Location 39 Kessels Road, Coopers Plains Qld 4108

Last updated: 11 September 2020