Drought and Bacteria // Outbreak of leptospirosis from grazing cattle puts a dent in northern Israel tourism

By Judy Siegel-Itzkovich

Tourism to northern Israel has suddenly declined—at the height of the vacation season—due to the outbreak of bacteria few Israelis have ever heard of, let alone have been able to pronounce. Leptospirosis has sent 42 people, including five teenage yeshivah students on a bein hazmanim break from their studies, to hospitals in various parts of the country.

They were admitted to Ma’ayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak, where they were treated with antibiotics to wipe out the bacteria. One of them, whose condition developed into meningitis (inflammation of the membrane covering the brain and spinal cord), was transferred to Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petach Tikva, where his condition improved significantly.

The yeshivah students, who had been on an organized tour, entered the water at Hayarden (Jordan) Park on the northeastern shore of the Kinneret and developed flu-like symptoms two weeks later after their return home.

Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals, is caused by corkscrew-shaped spirochete bacteria of the genus Leptospira. Without treatment, the infection can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death. The disease was first identified in 1886 by Adolf Weil, a German physician.

Leptospira are spread via the urine of infected animals, which can get into water or soil and survive there for weeks to months. Although the Hebrew name for the disease is achberet (named for the Hebrew word for mouse), the bacteria are carried by many kinds of wild and domestic animals besides rodents, including cattle, wild and domestic pigs, horses and dogs. Infected animals may continue to excrete the bacteria into the environment continuously or occasionally through their urine. Humans can be infected from contact with water, soil or food contaminated with the urine of infected animals. The bacteria enter the body via the mucous membranes (eyes, mouth or nose) or through the skin, especially if it is scratched or cut. One person, however, cannot infect anther with the disease.

Flu-like symptoms of the disease include fever, headache, muscle aches, red eyes, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, skin rash, cough and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes). Leptospirosis exists throughout the world, but it is more common in hot climates, such as Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, parts of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. It has been reported even in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Experts estimate that every year, as many as ten million people around the world contract the disease.

The bacteria incubate in the individual for up to a month, with the illness occurring usually five days to two weeks after exposure. Various blood tests are necessary to confirm diagnosis, which by Israeli law must be reported to the health authorities. There is no preventive vaccine, but avoiding exposure to infected waters can protect individuals from infection.

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