Rat Fever: Causes, Symptoms And Prevention

After the devastating floods, Kerala has a new problem to deal with. A bacterial disease, rat fever, is fast spreading in flood-ravaged areas. Read on to know more.

By Siddiqha Naseem

Rat Fever: Causes, Symptoms And Prevention

The floodwaters that brought devastation to Kerala during the monsoons have subsided; but, now there is another danger in the state that is claiming more lives. Volunteers and medical experts had earlier expressed concern over the stagnant water turning into a breeding ground for infections. Their fears are not unfounded — according to news reports, some parts of Kerala have been gripped by an outbreak of leptospirosis, a bacterial infection. Commonly called rat fever, the disease has claimed 12 lives in the state so far and many more people have been infected.

What can you do to keep your family safe from the dreaded infection? Read on to know more.

What is leptospirosis?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), leptospirosis is a bacterial disease caused by a bacterium named leptospira, which is carried by rodents, dogs and farm animals.

What causes leptospirosis?

Humans usually contract the infection through direct contact with the urine of these animals, or water and soil that has been contaminated with their urine. When the contaminated water or soil comes into contact with wounds or cuts on the skin, the bacteria enter the body. The infection can also be contracted through the mucosa of the nose and the mouth. Leptospirosis does not spread through humans. Although the pathogens are transmitted by domestic and farm animals, rats, moles and mice are the primary hosts.

During floods, people are vulnerable to infection when they wade through dirty water and the bacteria enter the body through wounds, cuts and fissures in legs.

"People who work in paddy fields, or who are exposed to sewage or dirty water may be prone to this infection. After an incubation period of one week, the bacteria start manifesting," says Dr Rajendra Kesarwani, chief intensivist and chest physician at a Mumbai-based hospital.

Which age groups are more vulnerable to the disease?

“There is no fixed age group; both children and adults can get infected. However, children above ten years, people working in waste management and those living in low-lying areas where rainwater can easily enter, are the major victims of leptospirosis,” says Dr Kesarwani.

Symptoms

Generally, symptoms start manifesting only after a week of contracting the infection.

Here are some of the symptoms:

  • High fever up to 104 degrees F
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Rashes on the skin
  • Jaundice (skin and eyes turning yellow)

When not treated immediately, it can lead to complications that involve lung damage (breathlessness, cough, blood in sputum), kidney damage (inability to pass urine) and liver damage (nausea and vomiting). The symptoms depend on the age of the affected individuals.

“A healthy individual may have curable symptoms like fever, nausea and muscle pain. Elderly persons, who have diabetes and other diseases, may have multiple organ damage,” says Dr Rajendra Kesarwani.

How can it be treated?

Mild forms of leptospirosis can be treated with antimicrobial therapy. A complete diagnosis from your physician is advisable. Treatment and medicine should be continued for a full course, despite initial recovery. This may help in killing any residual bacteria in the body. Your general physican will prescribe specific antibiotics for the infection. Patients with a severe form of rat fever have to be admitted in a hospital for treatment and kept under observation.  

Ways to prevent the disease:

  1. Do not allow children to play in dirty water — especially during monsoons and after floods.
  2. Always wear protective footwear when stepping out of the house.
  3. Use rat traps inside the house.
  4. Keep your surroundings clean and avoid water stagnation.
  5. Close sewage and drainage outlets near your house.

There are no vaccines that can prevent the disease; however, there are antibiotics that can be given to all individuals, when there is an outbreak of leptospirosis.

“Leptospirosis has to be taken seriously because the affected patients have 10 per cent chances of mortality. For those with severe forms, the rate is higher (30-60%). If untreated, it could lead to organ damage and, in such a scenario, medication will not be effective,” warns Dr Rajendra Kesarwani. 

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