Leptospirosis is a killer. The emergence of an outbreak of this disease is a serious matter of public health. It requires a serious response.
This is a disease which has always been with us. Though first formerly described in 1886, it has been traced further back to the 17th century when it is said to have been brought to the New World by colonizing Europeans. The epidemic among Native Americans in Massachusetts in 1620 is said to have been caused by this disease.
However, the more recent cause which has been postulated for the outbreak relates to the severe flooding experienced last month. Clean-up in south Trinidad is still going on after many areas were submerged in mud, sludge and debris. According to CEO of the South-West Regional Health Authority Gail Miller-Meade, there has been one confirmed death and another is suspected.
But death does not mean an inevitable outcome for a person who contracts the disease. Ninety per cent of cases are mild. However, early detection and treatment are crucial. Symptoms in the first phase include fever accompanied by chills, headache, severe muscle ache, abdominal pain, red eye, and occasionally a skin rash. After a brief reprieve, a second phase occurs involving meningitis.
Worldwide, leptospirosis infects ten million people annually. One million cases of severe leptospirosis occur annually, with 58,900 deaths. The tropics have a higher rate of infection, with as many as 100 per 100,000 people infected annually.
There needs to be all-round action to tackle this outbreak. Clearly action needs to be taken at the level of local government, by the business community and in homes.
People can do basic things such as limiting the availability of food to the rodents that transmit the disease. It must also be remembered that animals can also become infected. Pets, showing no symptoms, can contract the disease and pass it on to humans through contact with their urine.
The local government authorities must treat with this issue. It is not only mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, Zika and chikungunya that calls for their attention. Effective rat control is only a part of the equation. Another is the prevalence of moist, saturated areas due to poor or blocked drainage.
Chairman of the Penal/Debe Regional Corporation Dr Allen Sammy has taken a step in the right direction by retaining 84 additional staff to do restorative work of infrastructure damaged in the flooding. Attention must be paid to underground drains as well as surface facilities.
Though Sammy has complained about the need for more resources, the truth is our local government corporations should already have the resources they need to deal with a long-standing threat like this. They should not have to go begging for more funds whenever something comes up. Leptospirosis is seasonal and is linked to the rainy season. There is a constant risk of an outbreak.
Still, we observe that this is the second recent incident in a matter involving life and death for which the role of local government has been called into play. The other involved a complaint about poor street lighting contributing to a fatal road accident. These incidents underline the importance of local government and what is at stake in the process of local government reform. That reform needs to be expedited.
With a festive season of more eating and drinking upon us, businesses and households should take care when it comes to the disposal of waste. The State should also ensure it continues its educational drives to ensure people are aware of this most deadly of hazards. For some, awareness might mean the difference between life and death.