After a spike in cases of leptospirosis in Northland, farmers are being urged to take care around animals and to vaccinate their livestock. Leptospirosis is a serious bacterial disease that can cause flu-like symptoms, such as headaches, muscle pains, and fevers – in severe cases, it causes bleeding from the lungs, meningitis or kidney failure.

WorkSafe has been advised by the Medical Officer of Health of the increase in leptospirosis notifications in Northland. Seven cases have been confirmed so far this year with another one under investigation as a suspected infection. No cases were reported last year.

Al McCone, WorkSafe Agriculture Programme Manager, says farmers have a duty of care to protect their own health and that of any farm workers by eliminating or reducing any health risk. “Leptospirosis is a particular risk to people working in close contact with animals or animal products, especially in wet environments,” says Mr McCone. “Farmers should vaccinate their animals, control rodents, practise good personal hygiene, use protective equipment, and get help early if they feel unwell. As initial symptoms are very similar to flu, if you do feel unwell and go to see your health professional, it will pay to check for leptospirosis.”

A robust animal vaccination programme is critical to breaking the cycle of infection, which includes understanding farm management risk factors, says Mr McCone. The disease is transmitted in water and through the urine of cattle, pigs, deer and sheep, as well as rats, mice, possums and hedgehogs.

Infection can occur through breaks in the skin or through mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth. Dogs may carry leptospirosis or get sick with it and they may then spread the infection to humans. Talk to your veterinarian about vaccinations for your animals.

“You don’t have to come into direct contact with urine or infected tissue of an infected animal,” says Mr McCone. “Even a splash or fine spray of urine, or indirect contact with urine-contaminated water, such as water used to clean down a cowshed or stockyard, can spread the disease.”

Contaminated rivers and lakes may also be a source of infection. “The use of urine-contaminated animal manure when gardening is another potential source. In New Zealand farming systems, flood water, and water-logged paddocks and waterways, are a particular risk,” says Mr McCone.

Note - If farmers or their workers get leptospirosis while working, they must notify WorkSafe as it is a notifiable illness.

For more information on managing leptospirosis, visit:  Prevention and Control of Leptospirosis or watch Introduction to Leptospirosis - Episode 1 - Massey University(external link).

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