Water company flushes northern rivers to clear leptospirosis bacteria

Mekorot begins pumping into several northern waterways in an effort to contain spread of germs that have infected dozens

Illustrative photo of the Yehudiya River in the Golan Heights. (Phil Sussman /Flash90)
Illustrative photo of the Yehudiya River in the Golan Heights. (Phil Sussman /Flash90)

Israel’s national water company on Monday began pumping water into northern rivers in the hope of clearing the waterways of a potentially fatal bacteria that has infected dozens of bathers.

Leptospirosis has been transmitted to people through animal urine in natural water sites, and five years of drought have exacerbated the contamination levels.

The Mekorot company took the unusual action of pouring water into the rivers following a decision made at an emergency meeting hosted by the Health Ministry on Sunday. Health officials authorities met to discuss the outbreak, which has negatively affected the tourism industry in the north of the country at the peak of the vacation season.

The main waters infected with the bacteria are in the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee, including the Zaki and Yehudiya streams, the Daliyot estuary, the Gilbon River and the Jordan River in the area of the Jordan park, near the Golan Heights.

The Health Ministry also laid out other measures for containing the disease, including providing drinking water and pasture areas for cattle, fencing off springs to prevent cattle from reaching them, attending to the general issue of cattle and wild boars transmitting the disease, vaccinating infected herds, and improving local sanitation services.

At the Sunday meeting, the ministry said that 42 people had been infected with leptospirosis and another 242 people are suspected to have contracted the disease.

The 42 patients diagnosed with leptospirosis have received medical treatment in accordance with the severity of their infection, the ministry said.

People swim in one of two freshwater pools under a large waterfall on a trail called the Upper Zavitan on July 4, 2006, at Yehudia, a park in the Golan Heights. (Phil Sussman /Flash90/File)

“The Health Ministry is treating rivers, checking them, and has its finger on the pulse,” Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said at the meeting. “Those that aren’t good, are closed. And those that are good remain open. We think the situation is under control.”

As the number of reported cases of the disease has grown in recent days, there has reportedly been a sharp drop of some 30% in the number of visitors to vacation sites in the Upper Galilee and Golan Heights regions, impacting tourism. Hebrew media reports said that the cost so far has been estimated at over NIS 15 million ($4.1 million).

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 suspect the spread 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.

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

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