Lab results show Golan streams contaminated far beyond allowed limits

Zaki stream and 3 others show high concentration of bacteria behind leptospirosis outbreak; authorities prepare to pump clean water into waterways

Hikers swim at the Zavitan spring on the Glan Heights in northern Israel, April 18, 2014. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Hikers swim at the Zavitan spring on the Glan Heights in northern Israel, April 18, 2014. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Thursday published lab results showing up to 11 times more harmful bacteria than is allowed in several streams in the Golan Heights that were closed to the public after dozens of hikers fell ill with a bacterial infection.

The lab tests measured the concentration of the E. coli bacterium, which is commonly found in animal intestines and is said to be responsible for the outbreak.

Waterways currently closed to bathers due to an outbreak of leptospirosis, a disease that can be fatal and is transmitted via animal urine, are the Zavitan, Zaki, Yehudia and Meshushim streams; the Jordan River in the area of Jordan Park, Betekha and Bethsaida in the Majrasa, the Daliot River estuary, and the Jilbon River.

The Zaki stream was found to be the most contaminated, showing a concentration 11 times higher than the Health Ministry’s maximum level deemed safe for bathing and swimming, Hebrew-language media reported.

The water in the Meshushim and Yehudia streams showed levels of contamination almost three times higher than permitted, and the Zavitan stream was 1.25 times higher.

Young Israelis cool off in a stream in the Golan Heights, northern Israel. August 10, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The rest of the waterways on the list were only closed off on Wednesday and test results for them haven’t been obtained yet.

The Health Ministry has urged the public to remain calm, and has encouraged vacationers in northern Israel not to alter their plans despite the major scare, stressing that there was no indication of infection elsewhere.

The ministry said Thursday there was no change in the list of waterways closed off to the public, and warned Israelis not to trust “fake news” that said otherwise.

“We are closely following the situation on a daily basis and continuously updating the public,” said Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov.

“It is important to us to warn against the ‘fake news’ circulating on social media,” he added, saying people should “be sure to only rely on official announcements by authorized bodies.”

He urged the public to seek updates at the Health Ministry’s website and social media platforms, as well as the Nature and Parks Authority’s website.

The Nature and Parks Authority said Thursday it was preparing — together with the Water Authority, the Mekorot national water company and the local water association — to pump clean water into several streams to lower the level of contamination.

It said new water would be pumped into the contaminated waterways in early October. Waters will continue to be tested regularly.

Dr. David Raveh-Brawer speaks with Yuval Miskin (L), who was infected with the leptospirosis in the Golan Heights, at the Sha’arei Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on August 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said on Thursday it had examined 253 suspect cases so far, with 32 people having been diagnosed with leptospirosis.

Leptospirosis is transmitted to humans via the urine of mammals, usually from rats or mice, but also dogs, deer, cows and sheep. While the bacteria do not harm the host animal, in humans they can cause flu-like symptoms, including fever and chills, intense headaches, stomach pain and conjunctivitis, in milder forms. In a more severe form, it can degenerate into Weil’s disease, which causes liver damage, kidney failure, bleeding in the lungs and meningitis, and can been fatal if left without treatment.

Health experts quoted by the Ynet news site on Wednesday said they suspected the outbreak of the disease was caused by the large number of wild boars in the Golan Heights, who had been driven by a persistent drought in recent years to huddle continuously next to streams and urinate in them.

Stuart Winer and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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