Health Officials Launch Survey on Leptospirosis in V.I.

Survey team member Cosme Harrison chats with a particpant on St. John.
Survey team member Cosme Harrison chats with a particpant on St. John.

Public health investigators are knocking on doors throughout the Virgin Islands in an attempt to determine the prevalence of leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that made its first appearance in the territory following the hurricanes of 2017.

Leptospirosis, which has similar symptoms to mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever and chikungunya, is 100 percent treatable, according to Dr. Esther Ellis, the territorial epidemiologist.

The bacteria are found in the urine of domestic and wild animals, including dogs, pigs, horses, and rats, and can spread to humans when fresh water sources become contaminated, particularly after flooding occurs. The disease has been detected over the years in Puerto Rico which has more sources of fresh water than the Virgin Islands.

Health officials became concerned when the first case was detected on St. Thomas in October 2017, followed by two other cases, one on St. Thomas, and one on St. Croix.

A survey conducted by the V.I. Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, with assistance from student nurses from the University of the Virgin Islands, has been underway on St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, and Water Island during March.

The team’s T-shirt spreads the message about leptospirosis.

Teams are going to randomly selected homes and asking residents if they wish to participate in the study. If they do, they’ll be asked to answer a series of questions, which takes less than ten minutes, and give a blood sample.

If leptospirosis bacteria are detected, health officials will follow up with further testing of cistern water and other possible sources of contamination.

Following the 2017 storms, many residents resorted to dipping buckets into their cisterns, bypassing the usual filtration systems. Ellis said health officials are concerned that others might continue to be at risk if the bacteria are found in cisterns.

Symptoms of the disease are similar to those of the flu and include headache, muscle aches, skin rash, red eyes, yellow eyes or skin, fever, chills, cough, stomach pain and diarrhea. The disease can have more serious consequences, including death, if it is left untreated.

To prevent the spread of the disease, the public is urged not to wade, swim or bathe in floodwaters or any fresh water source that might be contaminated with animal urine. Cuts and scratches should be covered with waterproof bandages, and drinking water should be boiled or chemically treated.

This week teams are conducting the survey on St. John in collaboration with Love City Strong and on St. Thomas. Teams were on St. Croix earlier in March.

Ellis said she expects the survey results will be available within two months, and the Department of Health can then map out a plan for combatting the spread of the disease.

Student nurses at UVI's St. Thomas campus join the leptospirosis team.
Student nurses at UVI’s St. Thomas campus join the leptospirosis team.