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April 2001

Bacteria In Paradise

On your next tropical dip, beware of water-borne bacteria.

At last, you’re on that long-awaited backpacking vacation to Hawaii. During a trail break, you cool off in a crystalline pool of fresh water and enjoy paradise. But a few days later, you suddenly collapse with a high fever, chills, a bad headache, muscle aches, stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Could it be the homemade coconut wine? A more likely culprit is leptospirosis, a disease associated with drinking or swimming in water contaminated with the bacterium Leptospira.

Since the microorganism can squirm in through mucous membranes (eyes or nose) or broken skin, an innocent dip, or even a stream crossing, can result in infection. Antibiotics usually whip the bug, but if untreated, it can go into remission and then reappear in a more aggressive stage. The second time around, it can cause kidney or liver failure, meningitis, and death.

Leptospira historically has been found only in tropical waters, but recently it turned up in Lake Springfield, Wisconsin, and a few other Lower 48 locales. Best bets for avoiding the bug: Treat all water before drinking, and check with local land managers before diving into waterholes. If you’re planning a trip to the tropics, check for reports of Leptospira in that location by contacting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (800-311-3435; www.cdc.gov).

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