The New York City Department of Health reported that an unusually high number of cases of a rare and life-threatening bacterial disease that is often transmitted by rats has been recorded.
As of the end of September, the city has seen 14 cases of leptospirosis (also known as Weil’s disease), according to an advisory issued by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The agency warned of a confirmed death from the disease.
While the numbers appear not to be alarming, health officials say it is more than the total number reported to the agency in any previous year. City health officials have only 57 cases of leptospirosis recorded between 2006 and 2020, with up to seven cases reported each year. This year, “cases have been identified in every county except Staten Island,” the Health Department advisory says.
Thirteen of the 14 people were hospitalized with kidney and liver failure, and two of them also had lung problems. Apart from the person who died from the infection, all hospitalized patients were discharged.
“A person contracted the infection while traveling,” the notice said. “Among the thirteen locally acquired cases, most had a clear history or risk factor that exposed them to an environment with a severe rat infestation. Three cases reported homelessness.”
Leptospirosis symptoms tend to be flu-like and can be confused with many other health conditions, so officials urge healthcare providers to be vigilant for the illness.
Although cases are reported worldwide, it is rare in the United States.
WHAT IS LEPTOSPIROSIS?
It is a zoonotic disease, which means that it can be transmitted from animals to humans. It is caused by bacteria of the genus Leptospira and can be spread through the urine of an infected animal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Leptospirosis can be transmitted by many different animals, including dogs, cows, pigs, horses, and other wild animals.
HOW DO YOU GET THE DISEASE?
People can become infected with leptospirosis after having direct contact with the urine or other body fluids of infected animals, or contact with water, soil, or food contaminated by an infected animal. If a person has the bacteria in their eyes, nose, mouth, or broken skin, such as a cut or scratch, they can develop the disease.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
People can get sick between two days and four weeks after being exposed, according to the Health Department. Some people have no symptoms, while others may experience symptoms that resemble a cold or the flu, such as the following:
- Shaking chills
- Muscle pains
- Red eyes
- Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
In rare situations, people can develop kidney failure, liver failure, meningitis, which is an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes. As in one of the New York City cases, the disease can be fatal.
WHICH IS THE TREATMENT?
Leptospirosis is treated with antibiotics such as doxycycline or penicillin, according to the CDC. However, people with more severe symptoms will need intravenous antibiotics, the agency says.