Infectious Disease Outbreak Suspected in Israeli Streams as Swimmers Hospitalized

Several people who swam in Golan Heights streams are being tested for leptospirosis, a bacterial disease

The Zivan stream in the Golan Heights.
Daniel Tchetchik

The Health Ministry is investigating several cases of possible leptospirosis, an infectious disease caused by a bacterium that they are suspected of contracting from swimming in the Golan Heights. Swimming has been banned in the Zivan stream and the Zaki stream after they were found to be contaminated.

A patient in his 20s sought medical assistance at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed on Thursday suffering from symptoms consistent with the initial stages of leptospiros, a day after swimming in the Golan Heights. The hospital said he decided to be discharged because he was feeling better, but went back to the hospital on Sunday with the same symptoms, after which the medical staff began thorough testing to determine what he is suffering from.

Two other patients, a 43-year old Safed resident and his 18-year-old daughter, also came to Ziv Medical Center Thursday with a fever, chills and a headache as well as stomach pain and diarrhea. They told medical staff that ten days earlier they swam at the Hexagon Pool at the Meshushim nature reserve in the Golan Heights and had come to the hospital emergency room following the news reports on the possible contamination of Golan streams.

Five others who swam in streams in the Golan Heights have also come to the Ziv Medical Center emergency room with various symptoms. The results of lab tests taken on Sunday have not yet come back.

Dr. Shimon Adelstein, who is an adviser to the hospital on infectious diseases, said leptospirosis is the most common infectious bacterial disease in the world and is spread by animals, primarily mice and rats, in their urine. It is then spread to other animals, such as cows and dogs, whose waste contaminates bodies of water. Human beings then become infected by contact with the water through open sores, contact with their eyes or by ingesting the water.

Symptoms of leptospirosis, which vary widely, appear between three and ten days following the contact. Initially, patients can suffer what appears to the flu, and can be treated with antibiotics. At this stage, symptoms may include fever, chills, headache, muscle or stomach pain, eye infections and vomiting, or no symptoms at all. At its second stage, fever can reappear but the disease can also do serious damage to the liver and even result in death if not treated. Dr. Adelstein said patients should seek immediate treatment in the emergency room because diagnosis takes time.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority said it is acting in accordance with instructions from the Health Ministry on the issue and as a result, closed the Zaki stream to visitors on July 24 and the Zivan stream on August 9. The parks authority said it is "a seasonal phenomenon that reoccurs every year when water levels are low."