CAGAYAN DE ORO, 5 January 2012 (IRIN) - Hospitals in Northern Mindanao are preparing for more cases of Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease spread by rodents, following tropical storm Washi.
"All hospital and clinic staff are on alert," Jose Llacuna Jr, Department of Health (DoH) assistant regional director for Northern Mindanao, confirmed on 5 January, citing 314 cases and eight deaths in flood-affected Cagayan de Oro City and Iligan.
The two cities were pummelled by Washi, [ http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportid=94524 ] which struck northern parts of the southern Philippine island on 16 to 18 December, affecting some one million people.
More than 1,250 people died in the storm, while some 100 are still missing, the country's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) said on 5 January [ http://www.ndrrmc.gov.ph/attachments/article/358/SITREP%2029%20SENDONG%2005%20JAN%202012.pdf ]; close to 38,000 people are still in 54 evacuation centres in the area.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Leptospirosis affects both humans and animals. It is brought about by exposure to water or soil infected by the urine and faeces of rodents.
Common in slum areas, disasters such as typhoons can result in a spike in cases when residents are exposed to contaminated water.
Leptospirosis can cause fever, internal bleeding, meningitis and in severe cases, organ failure and even death, health experts warn.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [ http://www.cdc.gov/leptospirosis/infection/index.html ], the time between exposure to a contaminated source and falling ill is two days to four weeks.
About 80 percent of reported cases in Mindanao diagnosed were among males, with a median age of 26, Llacuna said.
"Men are left to clean up flooded homes and haul heavy objects. They are the ones exposed to infected flood waters," he explained.
"Most of the cases were among those who live in Macasinding, one of the worst flood-affected communities," Jose Chan, chief of the hospital at the Northern Mindanao Medical Center, added.
Residents who had not taken shelter in the evacuation centres were particularly vulnerable, he said. "Those who are not in the evacuation centres cannot be tracked or given medication or treatment. They are also likely to have prolonged exposure to the flood waters," Chan said.
But despite the outbreak, the levels of Leptospirosis are still nowhere near those reported during Typhoon Ketsana in 2009 [ http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportid=86779], when there were more than 2,000 cases and 167 reported deaths.
There is, however, still reason to worry.
"The accumulated mud is still a potential source of infection. It may still contain bacteria from the carcasses of rodents or their faeces and urine which remain in the soil," Brian Enriquez, focal point for Emerging Health Threats for the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC), [ http://www.redcross.org.ph/ ] told IRIN.
Moreover, clearing of certain areas will remain difficult as regular water service is not expected to resume before 22 January. District water supplies to both Cagayan de Oro City and Iligan were severely damaged by the flash floods.
To date, only pipelines in certain parts of the cities are partially functional, while addressing lack of awareness is also a challenge.
Rapid diagnostic kits are being deployed by the DoH to test early symptoms of the disease. The region is not known to be prone to typhoons, flash floods and landslides and many people were ill-prepared to cope with Washi's aftermath.
"We're not used to this [flooding]," Ellen Satua, a local DoH official said. "People are easily worried that having a fever already means they have Leptospirosis. Rapid testing and diagnosis are part of reassuring them."