‘Rat fever’ kills 9 in flood battered Kerala, 37 more suspected

Following severe flooding, 196 leptospirosis (rat fever) cases and nine deaths have been confirmed in Kerala since August 15.

Another 37 suspected deaths are awaiting laboratory confirmation, said the state health minister, KK Shailaja, on Monday. Among the dead are five relief workers.

“There is no need of panic but we have to be extra vigilant for at least three weeks. I have instructed health officials to engage with relief workers only after taking doxycyline tablets,” the minister said.

Antibiotics are used to treat leptospirosis, which is a bacterial disease contracted when people wade or swim in water contaminated with the urine of infected animals, which inters the body through breaks in the skin, eyes and mucous membrane.

The minister said that 523 people had sought treatment for symptoms, which include high fever, chills, headache, bleeding, muscle pain and vomiting.

Though the flood has led to a spike in leptospirosis cases in August, the disease is widely prevalent in Kerala, which has reported 788 confirmed cases and 36 deaths from January 1 to September 1 this year, shows data with the National Centre for Disease Control.

“An increase in the number of leptospirosis cases is expected after flooding because sewer water with infected rodent urine transmits the disease to people. This happened during the Mumbai flooding too,” said Dr Rama Chaudhary, professor, department of microbiology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

“But unlike Mumbai, the disease is endemic to the region, which makes the chances of it spreading higher. In fact, the numbers are always higher than reported because the symptoms are generic and many people do not reach the health infrastructure for treatment,” said another infectious disease expert on condition of anonymity.

“Now, the state needs to keep a close watch, test people with fever, and give antibiotics when leptospirosis is suspected. Rodent control is also necessary,” said Dr Chaudhary.

As the flood water started receding, fearing a rise in water and vector borne diseases, the health ministry set up rapid health assessment teams across the state to prevent and control outbreaks.

Dengue has spared Kerala, with only seven cases of the annual cumulative cases of 3,364 being reported in August. There are no chikungunya cases.

Dengue cases may increase as the flood waters recede further. “Currently, vector borne diseases are not very high, but there is a possibility of an increase as the water recedes and creates breeding grounds for mosquitoes,” said Dr PK Sen, director of National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme.