UWI Professor says early detection, treatment crucial to combating Leptospirosis


Paul Brown, professor of molecular biology at The UWI, Mona Campus, did not sound an alarm during his recent professorial lecture titled, "Genes and Shorts: lepto and other stories, through molecular lenses”.

Rather, Prof Brown, Head of the Department of Basic Medical Sciences, calmly proffered research solutions that would make any forward-thinking decision-maker sit up and take notice.  

Prof Brown’s wide-ranging presentation saw him delving into the fascinating world of microbes, while offering a riveting glimpse into his vast research work, collaborations and experiences. He shared interesting stories about the initial challenges of publishing his work while navigating the world of scientific collaborations, particularly interfacing with fellow scientists in first world countries. 

When it was time to focus his lens on Leptospirosis, Prof Brown highlighted the importance of early detection and treatment to prevent severe complications and death. He also briefly mentioned the potential impact that climate change would likely have on this zoonotic disease, suggesting that awareness, ongoing research, innovation, and political will would be advantageous. “Climate change and increase in temperature and flooding worldwide will likely cause a significant increase on the human, veterinary, and economic costs of infectious diseases, so clearly there needs to be greater focus on surveillance and mitigation effects,” he said.

Leptospirosis, a serious illness transmitted through contact with animal urine or contaminated water, remains a threat to global public health. It is responsible for millions of infections and around 59,000 deaths each year.  Prof Brown told the gathering that one of the major challenges in diagnosing Leptospirosis was due to the fact that the symptoms often mimicked those of other illnesses like dengue, the flu, and Covid-19. He went on to highlight the value of molecular testing for early diagnosis, and underscored the importance of prompt treatment during the initial stages of the disease.

"If antibiotics are not given early in the disease, it doesn’t matter how much antibiotics you give a patient, it will not clear the organism,” Prof Brown said.   “The organism disappears from the blood, and finds itself in several organs, and, so, that causes a lot more challenges in terms of managing the disease,” he explained. In fact, he pointed out that case fatality rate for Leptospirosis was generally around 10 per cent, but could go as high as 30 or even 40 per cent.  Prof Brown also mentioned potential parallels between Leptospirosis and COVID19, particularly the possibility of long term-effects such as headaches in some patients. 

Meanwhile, the microbiologist disclosed that rural communities faced a greater risk of exposure to Leptospirosis due to a number of factors such as water and soil contamination, among other social factors, and misuse of personal protective equipment among workers in abattoirs.  He went on to cite a snapshot study conducted a while back across surface waters locally. Although the study did not show the presence of organisms, Giardia (tiny parasite) was found at one location which he declined to name. "We know that once there is runoff from farms or other places, then that water can become infectious, and that has actually happened," Prof Brown said. "I wanted one or other of the ministers to be here, but word will get back," he declared.    

Originally scheduled for an earlier date, the April 23 lecture was derailed due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.