HEALTH WARNING: Localised outbreak of deadly disease
AN OUTBREAK of the potentially fatal disease leptospirosis has been linked to a small number of farms in Woolgoolga and Coffs Harbour.
Paul Corben, Director of North Coast Public Health, has confirmed that approximately 40 cases have been detected since late April.
Infected workers were presenting at Coffs Harbour with the flu-like symptoms that can be seen in the early stages of the disease.
"Emergency Department physicians first noticed something unusual happening in late April and at the time we were looking at other causes.
"It's a highly localised outbreak. To have over 40 cases is quite unusual but the risk is not widespread. It's confined to specific locations and we are working with the farmers responsible for those workplaces and looking for ways to protect humans through the course of their work.
"There is no need to be concerned if you aren't on those farms. It is unusual to get so many cases of it but not unusual for it to be found in people," he explained.
Authorities believe it is the type of leptospirosis spread by infected rodent urine.
"It's not associated with where people live but associated with working conditions. People in abattoirs traditionally have been people at high risk of leptospirosis.
"We are working with the people responsible for those workplaces to see how this unusual occurrence came about and how we can stop it happening. There is no broader public risk."
A possible scenario as described by Mr Corben is if a fruit picker has a cut on their hand the infection can be picked up that way if an infected rodent has also had contact with that plant. That's why North Coast Public Health are encouraging the use of gloves amongst pickers as one measure to help control the outbreak.
Mr Corben has insisted there is no risk to the wider population.
"The produce coming out of those farms is of no risk to people."
Alerts have been sent to emergency departments in Grafton and Coffs Harbour and to local GPs so they can be on the lookout for the disease which can be mistaken for the flu and is often difficult to diagnose.
Common initial symptoms include fever, severe headache, sore muscles, chills, vomiting, and red eyes. Some people with leptospirosis can develop kidney failure, jaundice and haemorrhage into skin and mucous membranes. Meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain) and bleeding in the lungs can also occur. Most people who develop severe disease require hospitalisation and severe leptospirosis can sometimes be fatal.
Leptospirosis is listed as a 'notifiable condition' so it's required by law to be reported to government authorities.
"It's notifiable because it is a disease of public health importance because if it is unchecked it can cause a great deal of illness and even fatalities."
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