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[COLOMBO] Public health experts in Sri Lanka have blamed lack of adequate research for a spike in cases of leptospirosis, a zoonotic disease spread primarily through the urine of infected rats.

Leptospirosis – caused by the bacterium Leptospira – is also spread by dogs, cattle and other mammals acting as secondary hosts, particularly in rural areas.

Human beings become infected through contact with urine-contaminated water, typically in paddy fields. The disease is not known to spread from human to human.

In Sri Lanka, some 5,000 cases have been reported over the past five years, with a rising trend in incidence (number of new annual cases). The island country, long endemic for leptospirosis, now has the second highest incidence in the world, after the Seychelles.

Suneth Agampodi, senior lecturer in community medicine, faculty of medicine, Rajarata University, Saliyapura, told a meeting last month (25 June) that control and prevention were being hampered by lack of baseline research data, essential for better epidemiological understanding of the disease.

Leptospirosis symptoms include fever, headache and severe muscle pain, which may lead to lethal respiratory and cardiac malfunction.

In Sri Lanka, recent research has focused on disease clinical symptoms rather than analytical studies to identify risk factors, circulating strains or disease remission – unlike in Latin American countries – Agampodi told SciDev.Net.

Preventive measures should target high-risk groups, Agampodi said. For example, traditional farmers are less vulnerable to the disease than those engaged in part-time farming, suggesting that exposure early in life helps develop immunity.

Agampodi also said imported diagnostic tests are inadequate as they cannot identify strains of the causative bacterium specific to Sri Lanka.

Another drawback is absence of an inter-disciplinary approach. "To prevent and control diseases such as leptospirosis, we need good team work involving scientists drawn from different fields," said Vasanthi Thevanesam, professor of microbiology at the University of Peradeniya at Kandy, which hosted the meeting.

"We need to get ideas from veterinary scientists, clinicians, epidemiologists and experts in other fields. This is still lacking in Sri Lanka," Thevanesam told SciDev.Net.