Weil’s disease is an illness caused by contact with the organism “Leptospira ictero-haemorrhagiae” carried in infected rats urine. Rats commonly live in farm yards and near water and it is known that the organism that causes the disease can live for some time in water. There is therefore a significant risk in caves carrying drainage from farm land, stables or quarries.
Cavers on Mendip are known to have contracted the disease in the past. Others have suffered a mild form of the disease which has not been diagnosed at the time, but has been detected in subsequent blood tests. Throughout the country the disease is on the increase among water users, which includes cavers, and although there have been no deaths attributable to the disease there have been a number of cavers infected, some of whom became very ill. The incubation period is between seven to thirteen days after the organism has entered the body. Entry may be by contact with infected water through a cut or graze, a blister or abrasion or via the lining of the nose, throat or alimentary canal.
The early symptoms are a fever, muscular aches and pains, a loss of appetite and vomiting. The later symptoms include a bruising of the skin, sore eyes, nose bleeds and jaundice. The fever usually lasts for about five days and is followed by significant deterioration possibly becoming fatal.
The disease is curable if it is caught in time but unfortunately the early symptoms are very similar to that of flu. It is therefore essential that the doctor be told that a patient may have been in contact with a potential source of infection. You must stress the need for an immediate blood test with the samples being sent directly to:
RIPL, Public Health England, Manor Farm Road, Porton Down, Wiltshire, SP4 0JG. Tel 01980 612 348 using the form supplied at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/346000/P1_Rare_and_Imported_Pathogens.pdf
Prevention is obviously difficult by the very nature of caving. Gloves will offer some measure of protection. Clean fresh water should be used to wash any wounds as soon as possible. Don’t take any chances! For further information on weil's disease see The Leptospirosis Information Center and http://british-caving.org.uk/wiki3/doku.php?id=publications_information:weils
The HSE have produced a leaflet. Although it is aimed a workers it contains useful information for cavers.