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Leptospirosis research given big boost

21 May 2008
For immediate release

Leptospirosis research given big boost by Rural Women New Zealand

Massey EpiCentre scientists were “absolutely overwhelmed” on being presented with a jumbo-sized cheque for $87,500 by Rural Women New Zealand at the organisation’s national conference in Blenheim this week.

The funds will be used to kick start new research into leptospirosis, New Zealand’s most significant occupationally-acquired disease, which is caught be humans through exposure to the urine of infected animals.

Fundraising by Rural Women New Zealand in the l970s and l980s enabled extensive research into the disease by Massey University and the development of vaccines that are widely used in the dairy and pig farming sectors.

Evidence that the disease was on the increase in beef cattle and sheep, along with news that a meatworker had died from the disease prompted the organisation to re-launch its fundraising efforts with a year-long nationwide campaign.

In offering his heartfelt thanks to Rural Women New Zealand members, Massey Associate Professor Cord Heuer said “we had been warned about the strength of your organisation and [the fundraising] you did in the l980s, and the remarkable results of getting the numbers of sick people down tremendously.”

The RWNZ-raised funds will be a springboard for new leptospirosis research, with further contributions coming from the Sustainable Farming Fund and other sources.

Massey’s new research will focus on the incidence of the disease in sheep and beef cattle.

“There is a much higher prevalence of this disease in beef cattle than we thought,” said Prof Heuer. One recent study suggests that 70% of beef herds are infected and every second animal showed positive antibodies for the disease. Similarly 80% of deer herds tested positive.

“If you translate that into shedding [of bacteria], about every fifth animal is shedding leptospira. There is a huge amount of shedding of this organism in rural areas.”

While meat workers tend to be heavily protected during their work, farmers, vets and other rural workers may be extremely exposed to this disease which can be very serious, and in rare cases fatal.

Massey’s EpiCentre Unit will create a new leptospirosis research position, with a focus on establishing whether vaccinating of sheep, beef and deer is economically viable.

“The other factor is human health and the risk that you and your families are running,” said Prof Heuer. The researchers will be sampling farmers and looking at risk factors and sources of infection, including transmission pathways from animals to humans.


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