British champion rower Andy Holmes has died of leptospirosis, which was suspected to have been acquired from the water during the annual Boston Rowing Marathon on the River Witham (UK) in September. The 51-year-old Holmes, an accomplished Olympic rower from the 1980s, started to feel unwell in the days after the race, and developed a fever. He was subsequently diagnosed with Weil’s disease, a serious form of leptospirosis that can cause liver failure.

In some ways, this is being written off as a very rare and unfortunate event. It’s always hard to determine how aggressive to be when making recommendations about avoiding infections that can be acquired from common recreational and occupational activities.

The race’s welfare officer stated "Part of any rower’s training is being warned about water safety. If you fall into water you must wash thoroughly and if you think you have ingested any water seek medical advice." The problem is, exposure to water during rowing and similar events is basically unavoidable. Splashes of small amounts of water into the eyes, nose, mouth or cuts/scrapes could be enough to inoculate potentially harmful microorganisms into the tissues. People aren’t going to run to the physician after every potential exposure. Knowing whether or not the water source has previously been implicated in leptospirosis infections may be useful, but it doesn’t tell you anything for certain.

General recommendations for people working around water include:

  • Covering cuts and sores with waterproof bandages.
  • Washing hands, particularly before eating.
  • Avoiding contact of water with the eyes, mouth and nose, whenever possible.
  • Avoiding ingestion of any amount of water.
  • Ensuring their physician knows about the potential for water exposure should they become sick.

Obviously, complete avoidance of water exposure is impossible for many people, and the overall risk is very low. Weil’s disease is a rare condition but it does occur, both as sporadic cases and large outbreaks. It’s usually treatable but can be fatal, so it shouldn’t be dismissed.

Issues with pets and leptospirosis are similar. Pets, mainly dogs, become exposed from contact with water that has been infected by Leptospira bacteria from the urine of infected wildlife.  Infection can cause a broad range of disease in dogs as well, from subclinical to acutely fatal.  Vaccines for certain strains are available for dogs who are at higher risk of exposure.  Talk to your veterinarian about whether your dog should be vaccinated against leptospirosis.  More information about leptospirosis in dogs and cats is available on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

Image: Andy Holmes sits behind Steve Redgrave after winning a gold medal for Britain at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.