Weil's Disease (Leptospirosis)
What is it?
Weil’s Disease is a bacterial infection which is carried in rats urine and contaminates water and wet river banks. Contamination can occur in any water, and the likelihood of becoming infected is greater from stagnant or slow moving waterways.
It begins with an influenza-like illness and may be associated with extensive bleeding into the skin and other areas, causing bruising.
Symptoms include fever, headaches, chills severe malaise, muscle pains, (particularly noticeable are pains in the calf muscles), vomiting and occasionally jaundice.
Leptospirosis may be an occupational disease affecting amongst others, sewer and river workers, miners and farmers, i.e. those groups exposed to water which may be contaminated by the infected urine of domestic or wild animals, particularly rats, or having direct contact with such animals. Consequently it can be a recreational hazard for bathers, campers and other persons using rivers, reservoir’s, or enclosed waters. It also follows that volunteers working on canals or rivers must be considered at risk.
How serious is it?
It can become a serious illness requiring hospital treatment, and lead to kidney or liver failure. The illness tends to be at its worse about the 14th day.
How do I catch it?
The bacteria are absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes of the mouth and eyes. It gets into the bloodstream more easily if you have a minor cut on your skin or feet. Occasionally infection may follow the swallowing of contaminated water or other materials.
What should I do about it?
If you fall ill with the symptoms, especially after any activity near open water, then go and see your doctor immediately.
If you see rats notify the owner or occupier of the land and the Environmental Health Service as soon as possible. If on a working party, inform your team leader. If you see dead rats do not handle them unless necessary and if you have to handle them use gloves.
How can I prevent it?
A good standard of personal hygiene can considerably reduce the chance of becoming infected. Workers exposed to the possibility of skin contamination should wear appropriate protective clothing, e.g. rubber gloves and boots. Adequate washing and first aid facilities at work are essential. Cuts and abrasions should be cleaned and covered with an adhesive waterproof dressing. Careful hand and forearm washing is important before eating, drinking or smoking.
IF YOU SUSPECT YOU MAY HAVE CONTRACTED THE DISEASE, GO IMMEDIATELY TO YOUR DOCTOR. INFORM THE DOCTOR THAT YOU HAVE BEEN ENGAGED IN WATER ACTIVITIES, TELL HIM/HER WHEN AND WHERE.
It should be mentioned that there have been no recorded incidents of Weil’s Disease involving either British Waterways or the Canal Restoration movement. This does not remove the need to be aware of the disease nor to take the basic precautions against infection.