NT human & cattle disease outbreak, Lepto ruled out as possible culprit

Jon Condon, 02/03/2017

A DISEASE outbreak in the Northern Territory has apparently sickened up to eight pastoral company staff and led to an animal disease investigation.

Some reports have suggested that there may have been animal sickness or mortalities on a property near Katherine, that may be related.

Early suspicions were that the cause was leptospirosis, but NT authorities were not willing to make a call on a culprit, before the animal disease investigation is completed, and a full diagnosis is made on the people involved.

Just minutes ago, the pastoral company involved confirmed that leptospirosis had been ruled out as a cause, among the human cases that presented. Contrary to earlier reports, no staff were admitted to hospital, but underwent examination and testing at a hospital, the company said.

However the Northern Territory’s exceptional 2016-17 wet season is thought to be a possible contributing factor in the infection.

NT chief vet Dr Kevin de Witte was reluctant to make a direct connection between a number of sickened pastoral company staff and a disease investigation this week involving cattle in the Katherine area.

“The two might be completely unrelated,” he said.

“Nor is there any direct proof at this point that lepto is the cause of the cattle disease. It could be Q-fever, or one of the myriad other viruses that we have up here, spread by insects.”

“If it does prove to be lepto, it would be unusual to record the disease in young cattle,” he said.

“For that reason, I’m not yet convinced that the disease that’s presented in the cattle is lepto. But in terms of public health, lepto is a feature of the environment up here in the territory,” he said.

“However the strain that mostly affects humans is not from cattle.”

Leptospirosis is a notifiable disease in cattle, but Animal Health Australia had no knowledge of the recent events in the NT when contacted by Beef Central this morning.

The NT Government offers this useful fact sheet and commentary on leptospirosis.

It suggests humans can become infected with the bacteria through contact with water, mud, wet soil or vegetation that is contaminated with the urine of infected animals. Cuts or grazes in people’s skin or splashes of infected fluid to the eye increase the risk of infection.

Human risk is heightened in areas around water, especially after flooding. In the NT there are typically 1-4 cases of lepto in humans notified per year. There is no human vaccination against lepto, but vaccinations are available for dogs, cattle and pigs against some strains.

“Playing in the mud is a definite risk factor in humans, but any person working at the back end of a cow can catch lepto in any weather,” Dr de Witte said.

He stressed that there was no suggestion that the recent disease event represented any risk whatsoever to market access for Australian beef or live cattle.

“The vast majority of disease detections like this tend to be in diseases that we already have, that can have a significant impact on production, but which can be managed. Most of the known diseases have no market access implications whatsoever, but can have significant production implications,” he said.

“Government business, of course, is to rule out the very small chance that it is an Emergency Animal Disease. But there is no suggestion that that is the case in this event, at this stage.”

Dr de Witte said the chances were that the animal impact was probably going to be something like lepto, tick fever, coccidiosis, pneumonia or a poisonous plant. He was unwilling to speculate on the possible causes of the human sicknesses that occurred this week.

Beef Central will report back to readers when diagnosis on both the human and cattle victims is completed.




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  1. Rodger Savory, 02/03/2017

    Thank goodness for good scientists and vets who won’t speculate to creating panic. Goodonya Dr.DeWitte.

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