Israelis told to avoid northern streams after leptospirosis outbreak

Dozens reportedly infected or suspected of contracting potentially fatal disease, which is transmitted to humans via animal urine

People kayaking in the Jordan river in northern Israel on August 27, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
People kayaking in the Jordan river in northern Israel on August 27, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry and Environmental Protection Ministry on Tuesday advised against visiting northern streams, after unsafe levels of contaminants at a number of locations were believed to have caused an outbreak of a potentially fatal disease.

A joint statement said the Health Ministry has received some 50 reports of people who were confirmed or suspected of being infected with leptospirosis, with a significant number of them falling ill after visiting northern streams or rivers.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection transmitted via animal urine, and can be fatal. It can cause headaches, muscle pains and fevers, or in more severe cases, bleeding in the lungs or meningitis. The statement did not give details on the condition of any of those who were confirmed to have the disease.

An initial epidemiological review found that exposure to the bacteria was traced to the Jordan River and the Hatzbani, Kziv, Zaki, Gilabon, Zevitan, Amud, Betzet, Amikam and Banias streams. A number of popular hiking trails run along and through the streams.

The Sa’ar River on the Golan Heights, April 3, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“Morbidity data together with environmental data (abnormalities in water samples and presence of cattle in streams) requires that measures be taken to prevent further infection,” the statement said.

The ministries advised against visiting any northern water streams until further notice.

Israel is currently under a nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak with travel restrictions limiting people to within one kilometer of home. As a result, the number of hikers visiting the streams should be lower than usual.

There have been periodic incidents of dangerous contaminants bringing closure of northern streams and water sites.

Last year the Health Ministry blocked tourist access to several popular streams in northern Israel due to unsafe contamination.

In 2018 health officials shuttered several waterways in the Golan Heights after dozens of people were hospitalized with leptospirosis. At the time, the Health Ministry said that 42 people had tested positive for the disease after swimming in streams in the Golan, and another 242 people were suspected of contracting it.

Health experts quoted by Hebrew-language news outlets at the time said they suspected the outbreak of the disease was caused by the large number of wild boars in the Golan Heights, coupled with a persistent drought in recent years that has driven them to huddle next to streams regularly, and to urinate in them.

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