A month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s residents and infrastructure, the storm’s aftermath is starting to harm more human lives. Huffington Post reports that the state epidemiologist Carmen Deseda announced 74 suspected cases of leptospirosis. These cases, reported in October, surpassed the yearly average of 60 cases and caused four deaths so far.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leptospirosis is found in the urine of infected animals. The bacteria can spread to humans through water or soil. If left untreated it can cause kidney or liver failure, meningitis, respiratory problems, and even death. Symptoms are similar to other viral infections and include headache, chills, high fever, muscle aches, and fatigue.
In a statement to The Huffington Post, epidemiologist David Capo said that this infection is rarely contagious between humans. The conditions in Puerto Rico, however, make humans vulnerable to contracting it through soil and water. Animal waste is also a hazard. Dog waste, in particular, was classified by the EPA 10 years ago as a dangerous pollutant similar to toxic chemicals and oil. Disease outbreaks like this show the importance of such classification.
When people come in contact with such substances and may have the disease, early treatment is key. A doctor who chose to be anonymous said in a statement to The Huffington Post that high suspicion is enough to warrant treatment. Waiting for lab test results could put the patient’s life at risk.
“We have all of the elements for that bacteria to grow and spread, and with preventative antibiotics, we can save lives,” the doctor said. “Because once it’s too late, I’ll be blunt, the patient will die regardless of what we do. And it’s up to a 70 percent mortality rate if the infection reaches the lungs.”
While quick hospitalization can save lives, the dire situation in Puerto Rico makes this more complicated. Much of the island is still without water and electricity, and this means that the healthcare system is stretching to treat existing patients. Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosello said in a statement to The Huffington Post that there are only 20 hospitals on the electrical grid. The rest are running on generators.
Rosello also said that his administration is using flyers to warn residents of a potential outbreak. But Capo said that the government needs to do more to prevent a serious epidemic.
“I would say the island is at risk of outbreaks of influenza, leptospirosis, dengue,” Capo told The Huffington Post. “The potential for outbreak is imminent.”