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Evaluating the survival and growth of Leptospira in lo’i (wetland taro patches) and loko i’a (fishponds)

Research Summary:  Leptospirosis, a zoonotic disease that affects vulnerable populations, impacts over 1 million people worldwide and kills around 60,000 annually. Unfortunately, climate change and increased urbanization will likely increase the frequency of leptospirosis outbreaks. Excluding Puerto Rico, Hawai‘i is responsible for the majority of the infections reported annually in the United States, with an annual average of 30 cases reported from 1990–2020. Yet, leptospirosis is underdiagnosed due to clinical presentation similar to many other infections and the need for laboratory confirmation; a survey of serum samples taken during a dengue outbreak in Hawai‘i more than doubled the annual incidence rate. Agricultural workers and those spending time in freshwater ecosystems, including Native Hawaiians engaged in recreational activities or indigenous practices, are at higher risk, but there is no environmental surveillance program developed for these spaces. 

The long-term goal of this pilot project is to establish a transdisciplinary leptospirosis research program in Hawai‘i that combines disease ecology, epidemiology, and public health outreach targeting Native Hawaiians and those engaging in biocultural restoration in wetlands. There are many knowledge gaps in our understanding of the role of the environment on Leptospira survival and exposure risk to people and other animals; therefore, our research combines an environmental survey of Leptospira spp. in Hawaiian wetlands with experimental microcosms that test mechanisms behind the pathogen’s growth and survival. We will also conduct an environmental risk assessment that includes a survey component for members of two community organizations engaged in biocultural restoration projects (Kauluakalana and the North Shore Community Land Trust). The objectives of this pilot study are to begin to characterize risk of leptospirosis in Hawaiian wetlands, to better understand its disease ecology, and to explore how leptospirosis is viewed by Native Hawaiians and those engaging in biocultural restoration.


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