After two Oahu men were diagnosed with a rare and potentially lethal form of leptospirosis in February, the BYU–Hawaii community and the rest of Oahu were warned of the dangers of this bacteria.
Kristen Consillio, a writer for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, said, “Both men had small cuts on their feet and walked through muddy waters in Kahaluu then started feeling flu-like symptoms —body aches, diarrhea, fever and fatigue — about a week later.”
The BYUH Health Center sent out a bulletin announcement on Feb. 19, warning students and faculty to be aware of this disease, especially when walking barefoot in the water.
The bulletin said, “The BYUH Health Center is asking all faculty, staff, and students to be more aware of leptospirosis after two nearly lethal cases of leptospirosis were reported in a nearby community last week. It is important for our campus community to be cautious of playing in the pools of flood water on our roadways and fields from rain and mountain runoffs, as they are a common breeding ground for the bacteria.”
Registered Nurse Lena Tyau, who works at the BYUH Health Center, said they sent out the bulletin because, after heavy rains, BYUH is notorious for pooling the water out in the front lawn of the school. Everyone grabs their boogie boards, and they play in the water, but it is dangerous because the water is a combination of mud, sewer water and runoff from the mountain.
“The temptation is great because it looks so inviting in the front lawn with flooding by 6-8 inches. The water may contain leptospirosis. Even if it is not that, you can get bacterial infections like staph or E. coli.”
Tyau said someone can get leptospirosis even by hiking or surfing. According to Tyau, often individuals do not know they have an open wound, like a hangnail or a break in skin from an itch. When someone goes into bacteria-filled water, the bacteria has an entry point into the body.
“Leptospirosis is associated with feces and urine from animals like pigs and rats. It tends to come from the mountain runoff, so people who go hiking and swim at the falls at the end of a hike are at risk. People have contradicted it even by going surfing, the runoff goes into the ocean, and the seawater has not killed all the germs.”
Kaiden Hinds, a freshman from Michigan majoring in psychology, said he goes hiking often and has been at various waterfalls on the island, like Laie Falls and Waimea Falls. He said he was not familiar with the dangers of leptospirosis and did not realize he was at risk.
“I think we forget what bacteria might be in the waters we swim and hike in. It is important not to enter the water with open wounds because it could lead to someone contradicting a disease like leptospirosis.”
He said he hopes students are more mindful and recognize the possible risk of entering waterways from the mountain runoff and heavy rains.
Hawaii State Department of Health produced a fact sheet on leptospirosis, which says:
“What is leptospirosis? Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals. The disease occurs all over the world, but is most common in warm climates. Leptospirosis affects cattle, pigs, horses, dogs, rodents (rats, mice, mongoose) and wild animals, including sea mammals.
“How do you get it? You can get leptospirosis by swimming or wading in freshwater puddles, ponds, or streams contaminated with animal urine, or by coming into contact with wet soil or plants contaminated with animal urine. The bacterium enters the body through broken skin or through the soft tissues on the insides of the mouth, nose, or eyes. You can also get it by direct contact to urine, blood, or tissues from an infected animal. Person to person transmission is rare.
“What are the symptoms of leptospirosis? The symptoms include fever, headache, chills, sweating, muscle pain, painful eyes, and vomiting. Occasionally, yellowing (jaundice) of the skin and the whites of the eyes and a rash may also occur. The symptoms may last from a few days to several weeks. Death from leptospirosis is rare. In some persons, the infection can be mild and without obvious symptoms.
“When do symptoms start? The symptoms usually start 7 to 14 days after being infected, but the onset can range from 2 to 20 days.
“What is the treatment for leptospirosis? A doctor can prescribe medicines to treat leptospirosis. If not treated, the patient can develop kidney, liver, blood, and nervous tissue damage. In rare cases, even death may occur.
“How can you keep from getting it? Do not swim or wade in freshwater streams or ponds in Hawaii, especially when you have open cuts or sores. Swimming with your head underwater also increases your risk of infection through the eyes, nose, and mouth. Do not drink pond or stream water without boiling for at least one minute or chemically treating it. Keep catchment water-collection areas free from overhanging tree branches and prevent access to these areas by animals. Control rats, mice, and mongooses in areas around the home and work site with trapping and poisoning, and by removing their nests. Wear protective clothing including gloves, boots, long-sleeved shirts, and pants when clearing shrubs or grass, or working in wet soil where leptospirosis is a problem. Wear gloves when disposing of dead animals and when handling or cleaning livestock or game animals. Vaccinate farm animals and pets.
For more information, see the CDC’s website.