What is leptospirosis, the deadly disease spreading in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico?

By Emma Curtis , AccuWeather staff writer
October 23, 2017, 11:32:52 AM EDT

A total of 74 Puerto Ricans are suspected to be suffering from leptospirosis since Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc across the island last month, and four deaths are being investigated as possible cases of the disease, according to the Associated Press.

Although dozens of people are may be suffering from the bacterial disease, officials have denied to call it an epidemic or a confirmed outbreak.

The disease is the result of contact with water that has been contaminated by animal urine. Puerto Rico averages 60 reported cases of leptospirosis each year. The 74 suspected cases have transpired since Hurricane Maria hit the island.

More than a third of the island remains without running water; some of those affected by leptospirosis fell ill after drinking local stream water.

Floodwaters in Puerto Rico - Hurricane Maria

People walk next to a gas station flooded and damaged by the impact of Hurricane Maria, which hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

According to the CDC, symptoms of leptospirosis are wide and varied but can include high fever, jaundice, red eyes and body pain. The CDC also states that some infected people may have no symptoms at all, a worrisome thought for those in Puerto Rico that have resorted to drinking contaminated water.

The time between a person’s exposure to contaminated water and becoming sick can range from two days to four weeks, leaving plenty of time for more cases to be reported over the next month or more.

The CDC states that leptospirosis can last for a few days or several months depending on treatment, yet people in Puerto Rico are dying from the infection.

Couple bathes in Gurabo River -- PR Maria aftermath (AP)

A couple bathes in the Gurabo River in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

"While most patients have mild or self-limiting infection, some patients will develop severe infection and present with bleeding or hemorrhage, kidney failure, meningitis and hepatitis," said Dr. M. Rizwan Sohail, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Mayo Clinic. "The death rate in patients who develop severe infection is between 5 and 15 percent."

While leptospirosis is rare on the United States mainland, with only 27 cases in 2015, it is not entirely uncommon in the tropics after heavy rain or flooding.

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"People should try to avoid certain risks such as contact with animal urine or other body fluids, swimming or wading in waters contaminated with animal urine and avoid walking barefoot to lessen exposure to contaminated soil [and] water," said Sohail. "Protective clothing or footwear should be worn by those exposed to contaminated water or soil."

The disease can be treated with penicillin or other antibiotics and through rehydration. A medical diagnosis is required to treat the disease effectively as many symptoms of leptospirosis are common in other illnesses.

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