Malaysia's Health Ministry warns of catching 'rat urine disease' at outdoor recreation areas

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Those planning to cool off in the great outdoors in Malaysia during the school holidays - beware.

The infectious disease leptospirosis - or "rat urine disease" - is not confined to dirty cities.

Those indulging in outdoor activities at waterfalls and rivers or while camping can fall victim to the disease, which is spread via the urine of both wild and domestic animals, usually rats.

The dry season is when the risk is highest as more animals go to streams and other freshwater areas. The concentration of contamination is also higher because of the lower volume of water.

According to Health Ministry director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah, recreation areas near streams and waterfalls can be polluted when rubbish and food left behind are not disposed of properly.

"They become food sources for rats and other animals. Faeces and urine from these animals will find their way into the streams and infect those who happen to play in the water and swallow some of it," he said, adding that if such things occurred, the Health Ministry would need to close the area and clean it up.

Freshwater areas can also be naturally contaminated by faeces and urine of rats and other animals.

"There is no need to avoid camping or trekking in these areas but recognise the risk and take the necessary precautions when wading or drinking the water," he said.

The recent floods saw the Health Ministry working to curb leptospirosis, while the Pahang Health Department has urged people to limit outdoor activities such as mountain climbing and boating.

In Kedah, people were advised by the state government to avoid swimming in waterfall areas due to an increasing number of infections following last year's heavy rain and subsequent flash floods.

There were 7,806 cases of leptospirosis last year and 92 deaths, a 75% increase from 4,457 cases in 2013.

Selangor was the worst hit with 1,832 cases, while Perlis had just 20 last year.

According to Datuk Noor Hisham, the best way to avoid contracting leptospirosis is to stay away from rodent-infested areas while preventing potential infestation.

"Deny the carriers food sources," he said, urging people to dispose of leftover food properly, store food carefully and keep the environment clean. "Remove potential shelters such as clogged drains and piles of garbage."

Dr Noor Hisham said areas that were breeding grounds for rodents would increase the likelihood of leptospirosis transmission.

"The risk of leptospirosis infection is very much related to personal hygiene, dirty food outlets and unsanitary environments," he said.

"Choose clean food premises. Always observe a high level of personal hygiene practices such as frequent hand washing with soap and water, maintain the cleanliness of houses, parks and food areas, and avoid contact with potential contaminated water," he said.

"For those who are exposed to the risk of leptospirosis through occupational and recreational activities, wear protective garments such as waterproof rubber boots and gloves, apply waterproof dressings for wounds before coming into contact with water, and bathe or wash with clean water and soap after each exposure."