'I was vomiting blood': Hiker's encounter with dangerous tropical disease

'I was vomiting blood': Hiker's encounter with dangerous tropical disease

Published Thursday 25 March 2021

Man standing in a pool of water in front of a waterfall.

The Wet Tropics are a wondrous place to explore, particularly its rainforests and waterfalls. But there are tropical dangers lurking in waters that you need to beware of, as a Cairns hiker experienced.

A hiker who became infected with a dangerous disease while chasing a Far Northern waterfall grew so sick, he started vomiting blood.

Steven Dangaard went trekking in the foothills of Queensland’s highest mountain, Mt Bartle Frere, earlier this month in search of a local waterfall.

He said during his hike, his legs became scratched and left bleeding by wait-a-while vines and other vegetation.

“My legs were cut up pretty badly,” he said.

“And this was while I was trudging through mud and walking through creeks, and all that kind of stuff.

“Two weeks after that, I became rapidly ill.”

The experienced hiker said he initially grew very fatigued but did not register his level of tiredness until he was halfway through another trek.

“I was hiking up to Glacier Rock last Tuesday and about halfway up, I didn’t feel too great, but I just kept going.

“I got to the top, and then coming back down, that’s when I started going really downhill with very bad fevers, aches and pains, and just a continuous headache.”

A few days later, when Mr Dangaard started vomiting and coughing up blood, he presented himself at Cairns Hospital’s Emergency Department.

Doctors diagnosed him with leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that can infect people via contaminated water or soil.

“They told me I was lucky I came into the hospital, otherwise I would have ended up in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit),” Mr Dangaard said.

There have been 28 cases of leptospirosis in the Cairns and Hinterland region – most occurring on the Cassowary Coast and Tablelands areas – since the start of the year.

This is a nearly 65 per cent increase on the average amount of cases that have been recorded during the same period in previous years.

Dr Annie Preston-Thomas from the Cairns based Tropical Public Health Services said leptospirosis occurred throughout mainland Australia but was more common in the tropics, especially after flooding.

“It is caused by the bacteria Leptospira which is passed from animals to people,” she said.

“Although it can be passed directly from animals, it is usually transmitted to people by skin or mucous membrane contact with urine of infected animals, which may be in water, moist soil or vegetation.

“There are many different types of this bacteria and they are widespread in the natural environment.

“Animals which may be infected with Leptospira include cattle, pigs, dogs, horses, rats, mice and native animals such as bandicoots.

“Some people are at increased occupational risk in northern Queensland, such as cane cutters, banana growers and dairy farmers.

“Others may be exposed through outdoor sports such as swimming, wading or white-water rafting in contaminated areas.” Symptoms of leptospirosis may include fever, severe headache, muscle aches, vomiting and red/ bloodshot eyes.

There may also be cough, abdominal pain and/ or a rash.

People can become severely unwell with involvement of their lungs, liver, kidneys, heart and brain.

Dr Preston-Thomas said that while there is a vaccination for leptospirosis that works in domestic animals, there is no vaccine for melioidosis or leptospirosis that works in people, but there were simple steps everyone could follow to prevent their risk of infection. These include:

  • Wear protective footwear; avoid walking barefoot on muddy surfaces or in muddy water, particularly if you have cuts or abrasions on your feet or legs
  • Wear gloves while working in the garden, farm etc
  • Wash hands before eating
  • Cover cuts and sores with waterproof dressings
  • Wash thoroughly (preferably shower) after exposure to soil or muddy water, and after working outdoors
  • Diabetics should maintain good foot care, with help from a podiatrist if necessary
  • To prevent leptospirosis, also clean up rubbish, long grass, food scraps and junk to keep rodents away

Mr Dangaard said he would be taking better precautions against the disease during his next hike.

“I’ve been hiking for more than 20 years, and never ever heard of leptospirosis,” he said.

“There’s two ways you can protect your legs from cuts and grazes: wear gaiters, or long pants.

“I always wear gloves anyway to protect my hands from wait-a-while and other vegetation.

“That’s definitely what I’ll be doing to start with. If I get any cuts, I’ll make sure that in my first aid kit, I’ll have waterproof patches to cover them straight away without getting anything contaminated.

“I think those basic steps will significantly reduce my risk to leptospirosis.”

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Last updated: December 2021