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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (February 1, 2001 - Oceania Flash/SPC)---A 39-year-old woman became New Caledonia’s first recorded leptospirosis casualty of the year, the daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes reports.

The woman, whose identity was not disclosed, died on January 19 at Nouméa's Territorial Hospital, officials said.

"It's the first death caused by leptospirosis. . . for this year. The usual rate is one in a thousand," said Dr. Fabien Mérien, head of the Leptospirosis Laboratory at the Institut Pasteur.

There were 239 cases of the disease and 19 deaths recorded in 1999.

No statistics are available for the year 2000, but Mérien expects that the number of cases will be less than in 1999 due to climatic conditions that were not as conducive to the dissemination of the bacteria last year.

"We can't totally eradicate the disease, only minimize the number of cases by trying to control the population's exposure to identified risk zones," Mérien said.

The most common spreading factors are contact with sick animals, especially rats, and water contaminated by animal waste.

"In this case, skin doesn't protect us. You just have to carry your garbage out, or hose your garden barefoot. And you can't prevent people from wearing flip-flops," Mérien admits.

Local authorities say no effective vaccine is currently available.

Leptospirosis cases were also detected in the last few weeks in the neighboring Fiji islands.

"Comparatively, this disease kills more than dengue, although people seem to be more sensitized to dengue. This is probably because the dengue vector, the mosquito, is visible. And nothing tells you that the water puddle you've just walked in as contaminated," Mérien said.

Usual symptoms, in the first stages, are very similar to dengue or influenza: fever, headache, and muscular pain.

If untreated, the disease can cause hemorrhaging, liver or kidney failure, coma and possibly death.

The only recognized efficient treatment so far is antibiotics.

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