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New Approach Assesses Risk of Water-Borne Pathogen Disease

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, along with colleagues at the University Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima, Peru, have// developed a novel approach for assessing the risk to humans of acquiring leptospirosis – a severe, water-borne disease that is the common cause of severe jaundice, renal failure and lung hemorrhage in urban areas throughout the developing world – from environmental water exposure.

The approach, which uses advanced molecular methods to measure risk for infection, may also be applicable to other water-borne bacterial diseases. The findings will be published on line August 21 in advance of the September issue of the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine.

“What we found supported our hypothesis that severe leptospirosis in the Peruvian Amazon is associated with higher concentrations of more virulent forms of the bacteria at sites of exposure and transmission,” said Joseph Vinetz, M.D., Associate Professor of Medicine in UCSD’s Division of Infectious Diseases.

This approach to risk assessment of environmental surface waters is globally applicable, and can connect the presence of water-borne pathogens to the risk of mild versus severe human disease, according to the researchers. Scientists will be able to determine if a sample of water contains Leptospira, as well as quantify how many of the bacteria are present. More densely contaminated water sources would be more likely to cause human disease than water with a lower concentration of Leptospira.

“This can have direct policy implications for health departments in monitoring the safety of water for bathing, cleaning and swimming – all ways that diseases are spread, not just by drinking contaminated water,” Vinetz said, adding that the next step is to intervene and clean up the water sources, and assess the impact of cleanup on the incidence rate of human leptospirosis.

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