5 people have so far been infected in the outbreak, with 4 having died. The Indonesian authorities have put health agencies on nationwide alert.
The epidemic is believed to have been caused by the growing population of rats in the Bantul area. This form of leptospirosis is also known as Weil’s disease. Although rats and mice are primary carriers, different forms of the leptospira bacteria are found in a wide range of mammals, including cattle. The bacterial disease is contracted when people come into contact with urine from infected animals or livestock. Bacteria enter the body through cuts or abrasions on the skin or through the eyes, nose and mouth. Symptoms of infection include high fever, severe headache, muscle and abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. In some cases, the disease can prove fatal with internal bleeding, jaundice and kidney failure.
Those most at risk are normally farmers and agricultural workers, such as those who toil barefoot in rice fields, sugar cane cutters or people who work in muddy livestock fields. In 2007, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that almost a billion agricultural workers in Southeast Asia risked infection. However, many more could be at risk following severe weather and flooding, when the number of outbreaks rises. Because the symptoms of leptospirosis are similar to those caused by other diseases such as dengue fever, the number of cases could be massively under-reported, especially among the poor and those living in slums, who are most at risk.
Health experts are increasingly concerned about infectious diseases which affect both livestock and humans. As the demand for meat rises, rural populations are expanding their smallholdings, bringing humans into closer contact with animals. According to a report in The Economist, scientists become aware of new diseases at a rate of around one every four months and animals seem to be the main source. Though most new diseases only infect a small number of people, some - such as HIV, bird flu and SARS - have proved serious threats.
Worries about emerging diseases are not new, but policy makers and researchers are keen to highlight the risk to public health, particularly where the number of smallholder farms is high, as in Asia. They warn that if the spread of diseases like leptospriosis is to be minimised, small-scale farmers and agricultural workers need to be educated how to cut down the risk of infection through the use of protective footwear and better hygiene. The Indonesian government have already asked health agencies to spread a message to farmers about washing their feet and visiting a clinic if bitten by a rodent.