Weil's disease - the facts

Although more commonly found in tropical areas, the dangers of contracting Weit's disease in Europe are small but real and Leaders and parents should be fully aware of the issues surrounding the disease. There have been no recent reports concerning Bristol Harbour.

What is Weil's disease?

Weil's disease is caused by bacteria which infect a variety of wild and domestic animals and carry the bacteria in their kidneys. The animals can excrete the bacteria in their urine for some time and put any other animal or human which comes into contact with their urine at risk.

How do humans become infected?

Humans are at risk of infection as the bacteria enter the body through cut or damaged skin. Bacteria can also pass across damaged or intact mucous membranes and the eyes. Humans can pass it on to other humans, but this is very rare.

Human infection occurs through exposure to water or an environment contaminated with infected urine. Anyone taking part in any water-based recreational pursuits such as rowing, canoeing, swimming, windsurfing and boating is at risk to infection.

What are the symptoms of Weil's disease?

In humans, Weil's disease causes a wide range of symptoms although some infected people will show no signs. The disease can cause an abrupt onset of a flu-like illness, with severe headaches, chills, muscle aches and vomiting. In some cases the disease can go into a second phase with the onset of a fever, jaundice, red eyes, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and a rash. In some severe cases, organ failure or meningitis may occur.

When do symptoms start to occur?

Typically symptoms develop 7 to 14 days after infection, although in some instances it can be as short as two to three days or as long as 30 days.

How is Weil's disease treated?

Weil's disease is treated with antibiotics which should be administered early in the course of the disease. For people with more severe symptoms, intravenous antibiotics may be needed.

Can Weil's disease be prevented?

There is no human vaccine available in the UK to prevent Weil's disease although taking the necessary precautions will dramatically reduce the risk of infection. Cuts or abrasions should be covered with waterproof dressings before possible exposure and cuts or abrasions sustained during activities should be thoroughly cleaned. Showering promptly after immersion in surface waters is also recommended.