Protecting yourself from Leptospirosis is key

Steve Wyn-Harris was absolutely flattened when he contracted Leptospirosis.

“I felt like I’d been run over by a herd of cattle,” the Central Hawke’s Bay farmer said.

He is one of 35 people confirmed to have had the notifiable disease in the region this year.

National Public Health Service Registrar Dr Matt Radford said there had been a significant increase in Leptospirosis cases in Hawke’s Bay. 

“The 35 cases we’ve had so far this year is more than double the number of cases we had for the whole of 2022.”

Dr Radford said there were 15 recorded cases in Hawke’s Bay in 2022, five cases in 2021, and seven cases in 2020.

“Summer is usually very dry in Hawke’s Bay and as the leptospirosis bacteria survives longer in wet soil, wider leptospirosis outbreaks tend to be more common after heavy rain and flooding.

“We saw higher number of Leptospirosis cases through January, February and March which was likely due to the wet summer and the increased risk from flood waters during Cyclone Gabrielle.”

Dr Radford said most cases have been farmers or other people in contact with livestock.

“It’s commonly picked up when people come into contact with the urine of infected animals or contaminated soil which can get into any uncovered cuts or grazes, or into the eyes, nose, or mouth. Rats and possums can also spread the disease.”

Mr Wyn-Harris is a sheep and beef farmer and believes he contracted Leptospirosis during lambing.

“I first thought it was a virus but then I remembered a mate telling me about his Lepto symptoms. I had incredible fatigue, headaches, aches, sweating and was shivering. It knocked the hell out of me and put me on my back for a good week.”

Mr Wyn-Harris visited his GP promptly and was given antibiotics. A blood test subsequently confirmed it was Leptospirosis.

Mr Wyn-Harris hosts a weekly radio show The Cockies Hour on Central FM and has used this platform to tell his listeners about the prevalence to Leptospirosis in the community. Of the 35 cases this year, 13 have been in Central Hawke’s Bay alone.

“I’d heard of a number of farmers who had it and then I had my own experience so I thought it was timely to talk about it.”

Mr Wyn-Harris invited Dr Radford onto the show to tell listeners what to look out for and how to prevent it in the first place.

Dr Radford said on average it takes about 10 days for the symptoms to develop and can make people very unwell with fevers, headaches, sore muscles, tummy pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and red eyes.

“It can be very serious, with half of the reported cases requiring hospitalisation this year and in rare cases it can result in death.

“As always, prevention is key. When working on the farm or around flood water make sure to cover any cuts and grazes and wash your hands well with soapy water before eating or drinking. It also pays to wear long pants and sleeves to protect your skin and use gloves when appropriate.”

Dr Radford said while there is no vaccine available for people, farmers should discuss vaccinating their animals with their vet, which can reduce the disease’s effect on stock, and help protect farmers.

“If you become unwell with these symptoms, contact your GP and remind them that you are a farmer as these symptoms are similar to cold and flu symptoms. You can also ring Healthline (0800 611 116) for advice any time day or night."

Mr Wyn-Harris urged farmers to take the symptoms seriously.

"I regret not having used disposable gloves or carrying disinfectant to use after handling sheep and dead lambs. It’s a disease to give some respect to.”

Photo: Steve Wyn-Harris tagging lambs. Credit Marlow Genetics.

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