Leptospirosis is estimated to cost New Zealand $30.4 million a year in working days lost and the cost of treatment, Rural Women says.
Last year, 113 cases were notified but thousands more cases were believed to have gone unreported because of their flu- like symptoms.
Rural Women, which has supported research on leptospirosis through Massey University for 30 years and funded preventative vaccines for dairy cattle and pigs, hosted a seminar recently to remind people of the impact the disease has on the health of the rural sector.
Easily transmitted, leptospirosis is passed from mammals to humans via urine.
There has been a noticeable increase in infection following the advent of herringbone sheds where cows can splash workers with urine during milking. The organism enters humans through mucus membrane or wounds.
Rural Women communications manager Jackie Edkins said people who contracted the disease could have it for weeks before they were correctly diagnosed and received treatment and they may be off work for weeks.
Thirteen per cent of abattoir workers, 4.6 per cent of veterinarians and 5 per cent of farmers were exposed to this infection.
Loss of livestock production due to disease and mortalities and in some species sub-optimal growth or reproductive performance adds to the economic cost.
“It’s a serious disease and we need to raise awareness of it again,” Ms Edkins said.
Preventative, safe practices include handwashing after handling animals or farm equipment, before eating food.
Vaccinations of livestock reduces the risk of human contamination.
“So the timing of the vaccinations is important,” she said.
New Zealand Veterinary Association’s Dr Roger Marchant runs the national Leptosure programme, developed by the NZVA and the Society of Cattle Veterinarians.
Their aim is to reduce the risk of human leptospirosis infection on dairy farms.
The programme also covers sheep, beef cattle and deer. Farmers are encouraged to vaccinate their calves before they are three months old, not six months old as was previously thought.
Dr Marchant advised if a farm has a high risk of leptospirosis, spring born calves should be vaccinated before Christmas and if they are going off the property, they should be vaccinated beforehand.
NZVA are members of FLAG – Farmer Leptospirosis Action Group which is funding a three year research project looking at the effects of leptospirosis on productivity and profitability for sheep and beef farmers and the potential cost benefits of vaccinating livestock. The project helps farmers make informed management decisions about leptospirosis.