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Hawai‘i Pacific University receives $50,000 for leptospirosis research

HONOLULU — Hawai‘i Pacific University has received a $50,000 grant to research the growth of bacterial disease leptospirosis in Hawai‘i wetlands in an effort to protect the state’s most at-risk populations from the potentially fatal disease.

Funded by the IDeA Netowkrs of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), the multi-pronged pilot project will last one year, as researchers seek to conduct risk assessments on the disease and better understand how the bacterium spreads through the state.

“The long-term goal of this pilot project is to establish a transdisciplinary leptospirosis research program in Hawai‘i that combines disease ecology, epidemiology and public health outreach targeting Native Hawaiians and those engaging in biocultural restoration in wetlands,” the research summary reads.

Caused by the Leptospira bacterium, leptospirosis can spread to humans through cuts or abrasions in skin, or through the eyes, mouth or nose. The disease is rarely spread from person to person — infection typically occurs either from swimming in freshwater contaminated with animal urine, or by touching wet soil or plants contaminated with animal urine.

Direct contact to urine, blood or tissues from an infected animal can also spread illness. Leptospirosis can infect rodents, mongoose, cattle, pigs, horses and dogs, as well as sea mammals.

Over 1 million people contract leptospirosis each year, causing an average 60,000 annual deaths. In Hawai‘i, approximately 30 cases are reported each year. However, because the disease often causes flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, muscle aches and vomiting, health experts believe the disease is severely underdiagnosed.

Not every Hawai‘i resident is equally at risk to contract leptospirosis, though. Native Hawaiians engaged in indigenous practices tend to fall ill to the disease at notably higher rates, as a result of more time spent in freshwater ecosystems, such as taro lo‘i (patches) and loko i‘a (fishponds).

“Many of the native Hawaiian community organizations are trying to restore lo‘i and loko i‘a with the idea of achieving food sovereignty,” said Carmella Vizza, assistant professor and principal investigator of the grant.

“With this research grant, we are aiming to see where we find the bacteria that causes leptospirosis in different Hawaiian wetland environments, specifically sites undergoing biocultural restoration.”

The Hawai‘i Department of Health recommends Hawai‘i residents and visitors alike take several precautions in order to prevent leptospirosis infection.

• Do not swim or wade in any freshwater streams or ponds in Hawai‘i, especially when you have open cuts or sores.

• Do not drink pond or stream water without boiling or chemically treating it.

• Keep catchment water-collection areas free from overhanging tree branches, and prevent access to these areas by animals.

• Control rats, mice and mongooses in areas around the home and worksite with trapping and poisoning, and by removing their nests.

• Wear protective clothing, including gloves, boots long-sleeved shirts and pants, when clearing shrubs or grass, or when working in wet soil where leptospirosis is an issue.

• Wear gloves when disposing of dead animals and when gutting livestock or game animals.

• Vaccinate farm animals and pets.

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Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or jhealy@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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