Leptospirosis is a nasty disease that is present in many parts of the world including the United Kingdom. As paddlers we spend a great deal of time in the same environment that the bacteria likes to live.

Leptospirosis is a zoonotic condition, which means it is spread to humans by animals. You can catch leptospirosis by touching soil or water contaminated with the urine of wild animals infected with the leptospira bacteria.

Animals known to be carriers of the leptospira bacteria include:

– cows
– pigs
– dogs
– rodents, particularly rats

Once a young animal is infected, they shed the bacteria in their urine for the rest of their life. Most animals have no symptoms, but up to 1 in 10 infected dogs die from the disease. Human to human transmission through sex is possible, but very rare.


For most people infection with leptospirosis causes a ‘flu-like’ illness that usually develops about 7 – 14 days after initial infection. The symptoms may include the following (although some people can present no symptoms at all):

– Fever
– Headache
– Muscle aches and pains
– Rashes
– Often swollen and inflamed eyes and eyelids

Typically, there are two phases to the illness. First, the initial symptoms develop – this is known as the bacteraemic phase, where the organisms spread to the tissues. These systems tend to settle down but then a second phase may begin, as fever, jaundice, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and a rash may return. This more severe form of leptospirosis is known as Weil’s disease and can be fatal. One in ten people who get leptospirosis infection develop Weil’s disease and may suffer internal bleeding, liver damage and jaundice, and kidney damage.

This is serious stuff but it can be treated very effectively with antibiotics if caught in time. If you are at all unsure whether you have or have not contracted leptosprirosis/weils disease you must seek medical advice and let them know that you are a kayaker/canoeist and that you may have been in contact with contaminated water/river banks.


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