A health official said Wednesday that authorities were considering closing off more rivers and streams in the Golan Heights — including the Jordan River — possibly for months, as more people were hospitalized with a bacterial infection that has turned into a major scare.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority earlier this week banned bathing in the Zavitan, Zaki, Yehudia and Meshushim streams until further notice, after dozens of swimmers fell ill with symptoms feared to be leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that can be fatal and is transmitted via animal urine.
Prof. Itamar Grotto, deputy director general of the Health Ministry, told the Ynet news site that the Jordan River and its tributaries — the Hasbani River, Banias stream and Dan River — could be contaminated.
“Right now it isn’t certain,” he said. “If anyone is in doubt then of course don’t go in.”
Prof. Grotto said lab results from several streams would be received Wednesday, and that the Health Ministry would then make the decision whether to close more water bodies to the public.
In the meantime, he stressed, it is advised not to swim in streams and water bodies without a strong current.
He said the only solution to the contamination is strong currents due to significant rain.
Asked if access to the streams could be blocked until December or January, Grotto said, “It’s possible; maybe there will be rain before that, I don’t know.”
On Wednesday a central Israel hospital said that five teenagers had arrived with suspected leptospirosis after kayaking in the Jordan River, raising concerns that one of Israel’s main water bodies had been contaminated.
The Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak said the high school students, 14 to 17 years old, had fallen ill two weeks after visiting the kayaking site north of the Sea of Galilee, and it was expecting more patients with similar symptoms.
In response, kayaking company Abu Kayak criticized the hospital for its “irresponsible announcement,” which had caused damage to its business and “defamed” the firm.
“The water hasn’t been examined and there is no indication this is leptospirosis,” it said in a statement.
The Health Ministry confirmed on Tuesday that at least 12 people had been diagnosed with the disease, and more than 50 others are awaiting test results to confirm they have been infected.
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 Ynet said they suspected the outbreak of the disease was caused by the large number of wild boars in the Golan, coupled with a persistent drought in recent years that has driven them to huddle continuously next to streams and urinate in them.
Dr. Doron Tiomkin told the outlet that there have been many recent cases of pregnancy loss among cows in the Golan, and that the cause has been determined to be various forms of leptospirosis, especially one that originates in wild boars and other wild animals.
Meanwhile, one of Israel’s main mineral water companies, Mey Eden, said it has stopped pumping water from one of its sources, the Salukia Spring in the Golan, after the water was found to be contaminated in recent days.
But the company denied reports that this has affected its supply to customers, saying it was continuing to market water as usual from water tanks in its factory in the town of Katzrin.
The Health Ministry has previously called on anyone who swam in the infected streams on or after July 1, and who has had a fever of more than 38 degrees Celsius in the past three weeks, to see their family doctor as soon as possible.
Other symptoms mentioned by the ministry — also typical of the common flu — are headaches and muscle pain. Some may also suffer liver or kidney diseases, it added.
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.