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Bathing Water Quality and Human Health


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Leptospira (freshwater)

published on 01/08/2008


There exist many species of leptospira in the environment, but not all of them are pathogens. The germs responsible for disease are bacteria (leptospira) borne by certain infected animals, who discharge them into the environment through their urine. Leptospira are present in freshwater and mud banks.
Many wild or domestic mammals, mainly rodents (rats, livestock, dogs, etc.), can be infected, and are the main vehicles for the spread of leptospira.
Leptospirosis, a disease of animal origin that can be transmitted to man, is passed on mainly by indirect means, when bathing in freshwater. Leptospira enter the body through wounds, skin lesions or the mucous glands. Contamination via the digestive tract (absorption of food soiled by the urine of sick animals) remains exceptional.

Health Impacts

In France, around 600 to 800 cases of leptospirosis are identified each year. The disease affects primarily the overseas territories (1/3 to 2/3 of cases).

In mainland France, leptospirosis is seen mainly from July to September-October, in the southwestern, central western and eastern regions of France. The Mediterranean coast is rarely affected.
Originally, leptospirosis was known above all as an occupational disease affecting sewage workers. It can also be found in professionals who work with infected animals (breeders, farmers, veterinarians, slaughterhouse workers).
It is an infectious disease that exists in various forms. One is ictero-hemorrhagic fever, which impairs the liver and kidneys. The outcome is usually positive, provided appropriate antibiotic treatment. However, the more serious forms require hospital care and, in some exceptional cases, lead to death.
Due to the hygiene measures taken in most exposed professions and the existence of vaccination against one form, leptospirosis increasingly come to occur in freshwater recreational settings: 60% of cases today involve people whose profession does not expose them to the bacteria.
Health Recommendations
Prevention requires heeding the local health authorities’ recommendations, particularly any measures prohibiting bathing in freshwater.
Remember also that you should not bathe if you have skin lesions.
Should you experience fever after bathing, inform your physician that you have been bathing in freshwater (the incubation time is 4 to 19 days, with the average being 10 days). Today, antibiotics are required only in particularly affected countries, with high risk exposure (see Travel Advice Centres).
More information, ask the National Leptospirosis Reference Centre and the Pasteur Institute’s Web site. (