Leptospira are generally harmless spirochetes that are commonly found in the soil. However, some pathogenic species can cause an infection called leptospirosis in the kidneys and other organs. Leptospirosis can produce fever, headache, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, and rash with severe muscular pain. If the disease continues to progress, infection of the kidney, meninges, or liver may occur and may lead to organ failure or meningitis. When the kidney and liver become seriously infected, it is called Weil’s disease. Pulmonary hemorrhagic syndrome can also develop in the lungs, and jaundice may occur.
Leptospira spp. are found widely in animals such as dogs, horses, cattle, pigs, and rodents, and are excreted in their urine. Humans generally become infected by coming in contact with contaminated soil or water, often while swimming or during flooding; infection can also occur through contact with body fluids containing the bacteria. The bacteria may enter the body through mucous membranes, skin injuries, or by ingestion. The mechanism of pathogenicity is not well understood.
Leptospirosis is extremely rare in the United States, although it is endemic in Hawaii; 50% of all cases in the United States come from Hawaii. It is more common in tropical than in temperate climates, and individuals who work with animals or animal products are most at risk. The bacteria can also be cultivated in specialized media, with growth observed in broth in a few days to four weeks; however, diagnosis of leptospirosis is generally made using faster methods, such as detection of antibodies to Leptospira spp. in patient samples using serologic testing. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR), enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), slide agglutination, and indirect immunofluorescence tests may all be used for diagnosis. Treatment for leptospirosis involves broad-spectrum antibiotics such as penicillin and doxycycline. For more serious cases of leptospirosis, antibiotics may be given intravenously.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology