Leptospirosis is caused by pathogenic bacteria such as the Leptospira interrogans species. This bacterium survives well in the outside environment (freshwater, muddy soil, etc.), which facilitates contamination.
The incubation period lasts an average of 4 to 14 days. This disease has a number of clinical forms, ranging from flu-like syndrome to multi-organ involvement with hemorrhagic syndrome. In its moderate form, the disease starts with high fever and shivering, headache, muscle pain and generalized joint pain. However, it may go on to affect the kidneys, liver, meninges or lungs. There are no distinctive symptoms, but conjunctival jaundice and myalgia are particularly common. Serious forms (hemorrhagic jaundice or Weil's disease) bring acute kidney failure, neurological disorders (seizures, coma) and pulmonary and gastrointestinal hemorrhaging with varying degrees of severity. Convalescence is lengthy, but usually without sequelae. Late ocular complications (uveitis, keratitis) may occur.
A biological diagnosis can be confirmed by can be confirmed by amplification of the bacterium genome during the first week after the onset of high fever, or by serology (antibody search) from the second week of the disease onwards.
This is a disease seen throughout the world, mainly in tropical regions. In mainland France it affects around 600 people annually, which indicates an annual incidence of 1 per 100,000 inhabitants. The incidence is from 50 to 100 times higher in tropical regions, such as the French overseas collectivities or many Latin American and Southeast Asian countries. The number of serious cases of leptospirosis seen annually throughout the world is estimated at over one million, with a case fatality rate above 10%. The disease has a clear seasonal pattern, with peaks during the rainy season in tropical regions or during summer to autumn in temperate countries (fresh water bathing).
Certain occupations (farmers, livestock breeders, sewage workers, refuse collectors, etc.) and people who take part in water sports (swimming, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hunting, canyoneering, etc.) are particularly at risk. In humans, the bacterium enters the body mainly through damaged skin or the mucous membranes. The animal reservoir is highly diversified and, in addition to rodents and insectivores, includes livestock such as cattle, horses or pigs – in which infection is a frequent occurrence and results in significant financial losses – and domestic animals such as dogs. All these animals transmit leptospirosis via their urine. Entire flocks and herds become contaminated from just a few carrier individuals. Epidemiology varies between geographical regions, depending on the ecosystem and living conditions.
Treatment and prevention
The serious forms require hospitalization. Treatment is based on intensive care. Early administration of antibiotics (amoxicillin, cephalosporin and cyclins) reduces the risk of complications, shortens disease progression, relieves symptoms and limits renal damage. In terms of prevention, collective measures to control rat populations and effluents from factory farming systems and to drain flooded areas might be effective but are difficult to implement. A monovalent human vaccine is available in France, solely to workers with a high level of exposure (sewage workers and refuse collectors). Personal protection (gloves, glasses, boots) is recommended during risky activities. A multivalent vaccine for dogs is widely used in France.
At the Institut Pasteur
Fundamental research into Leptospira is being undertaken by the Biology of Spirochetes Unit, which also includes the National Reference Center for Leptospirosis. A number of leptospiral identification methods have been developed. Epidemiological surveys have also been undertaken in endemic regions (the island of Mayotte, the Antilles, etc.). Recently, more than forty new species of Leptospira have been identified. Lastly, scientists at the Institut Pasteur have also identified several virulence factors in the bacterium responsible for this disease. The Unit collaborates on multiple projects with Institutes from the network, such as Institut Pasteur of New Caledonia, Institut Pasteur of Montevideo (Urugay) and the INRS- Centre Armand Frappier Santé-Biotechnologie (Canada).
Biology of Spirochetes laboratory led by Mathieu Picardeau
Surveillance and Public Health
National Reference Center for Leptospirosis