Leptospirosis (Weil’s disease)

Leptospira icterohaemorrhagiae is most commonly transmitted by exposure to the water of sewers, stagnant canals and ponds which has been contaminated by the urine of brown rats.

Some rivers in England such as the Trent, are a risk for people who enjoy water sports such as kayaking.

It may also be transmitted to humans by badgers and hedgehogs. Infection could also be caused by contact with contaminated predators of the host animals such as dogs or foxes.

It has an incubation period of 2-30 days and then can present with the following symptoms

  • Sudden onset of fever
  • Muscle pains
  • Headache
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Rash
  • A dislike of bright lights (photophobia)

Most people recover fully and it is probably under-diagnosed in its mild form, passing as a flu-like illness. More severe cases may develop a kind of meningitis and possibly kidney failure. Extreme cases develop haemorrhages in the skin, mucous membranes, such as the inside of the mouth and lungs. This is very serious and patients become very ill and may die within a week. The mortality rate in such cases is as high as 20%. If diagnosed early, penicillin can be useful.

People most at risk include farmers, vets, sewage workers and those taking part in water sports. Bear in mind though, the garden pond - particularly if you know there are rats in the neighbourhood. It may be worthwhile limiting your exposure to the water, and thoroughly washing your hands after exposure.

Further information

This article published on
01 July 2005

Next review date 7/1/2013


Skin, hair and bones
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