Leptospirosis: The hidden ‘outbreak’ in Puerto Rico


“Twenty-six deaths attributed to leptospirosis — that is extraordinary,” stated Dr. Joseph Vinetz, a professor of drugs on the College of California San Diego and an skilled on the illness, who reviewed the information. “There is no different manner of placing it … The numbers are large.”

Puerto Rico’s Well being Division attributed solely 4 leptospirosis deaths to Hurricane Maria till June 22, when it added two extra after CNN and CPI requested in regards to the 26 deaths. Officers maintained that the timing was associated to laboratory checks and never questions from reporters.

Laboratory checks usually take weeks, not months, consultants stated.

The 2 extra deaths haven’t been added to the official Hurricane Maria demise toll of 64. A spokeswoman for the Division of Public Security, which determines the demise toll for the storm, stated the federal government is not going to regulate the quantity till the researchers it employed at George Washington College full a overview of the demise toll from the hurricane.

The Hurricane Maria demise toll has come underneath intense scrutiny following investigations by CNN, CPI and others. In Might a examine within the New England Journal of Medication estimated primarily based on interviews that 793 to 8,498 people died for reasons related to Hurricane Maria, with lots of these deaths being attributed to the dearth of companies, like electrical energy, within the storm’s aftermath.

The mortality database doesn’t point out whether or not the circumstances had been confirmed in laboratory checks as associated to leptospirosis. It solely reveals whether or not “leptospirosis” was written on a demise certificates. However CNN and CPI investigated two suspected leptospirosis deaths that had been uncounted within the official Hurricane Maria demise toll and appeared, primarily based on interviews with households, neighbors and docs to be associated to the storm. Each males had been aid staff or volunteers who spent appreciable time in floodwaters, the place the illness is understood to unfold.

One of many males, Daniel L. Vick, a 31-year-old father from Cayey, examined constructive for leptospirosis at an area lab, in response to his physician. His medical information, offered by his household, present he was hospitalized with “fever/chills,” “nausea/vomiting” and “diarrhea,” which docs say is according to the illness. Earlier than his third and remaining hospitalization, relations and neighbors stated, he was seen popping out of his home with jaundiced, yellowed pores and skin — one other signal of leptospirosis.

His mom would not perceive why his demise is uncounted.

“Possibly the federal government thought that the extra folks (that) died the more serious it could look — that it meant they did a foul job responding to this tragedy,” Margarita Rodriguez stated. “It is incomprehensible. It looks as if they do not care. The one factor they care about is their picture.”

Leptospirosis could be very hardly ever deadly and might be handled with frequent antibiotics. It’s carried principally within the urine of rats and different animals. It may be ingested in ingesting water or absorbed by cuts within the pores and skin. Neither of the boys whose deaths CNN and CPI investigated got gloves, boots or prophylactic antibiotics, in response to their households. These easy measures may also help forestall leptospirosis diseases amongst folks working in floodwaters, consultants stated.

Basically, epidemiologists stated that deaths occurring nearer to the September 20, 2017 hurricane had been extra prone to be linked to the storm than these occurring in 2018. The 26 deaths labeled “leptospirosis” in Puerto Rico’s knowledge occurred between September 24, 2017 and March 6, 2018. The vast majority of these deaths — 21 — occurred earlier than December 31.

For comparability, there have been 11 suspected leptospirosis deaths in Puerto Rico the earlier 12 months, in response to Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention (CDC) mortality knowledge analyzed for CNN and CPI by an impartial demographer.

Puerto Rican officers say they solely are counting leptospirosis deaths as hurricane associated if the diseases had been confirmed by CDC checks and if the deaths occurred between September 20, the day of the storm, and October 20.

Daniel Vick's mother, Margarita Rodriguez, holds a photo of her son, whose death was labeled "leptospirosis" in a database obtained by CNN and CPI.

Vick’s demise occurred on October 19, sooner or later earlier than that cutoff. It is unclear whether or not his demise was analyzed by CDC checks as a result of officers declined to touch upon particular circumstances.

Vinetz, from UCSD, referred to as the one-month timeframe indefensible as a result of it may possibly take three weeks for leptospirosis signs to point out up after an infection; and since hurricane clean-up — and the potential for publicity to leptospirosis that goes with it — continued for weeks.

“It isn’t justified,” he stated. “It is in all probability too restrictive and it underestimates the numbers … I believe it is extra possible than not it is a political resolution. It isn’t justified by the medical science.”

Requested by CNN and CPI why so many extra leptospirosis-labeled deaths seem in Puerto Rico’s mortality information than have been publicly acknowledged as storm-related, Dr. Carmen Deseda, Puerto Rico’s state epidemiologist stated, “loads of instances the physicians haven’t got entry to the total information, and the laboratories should still be pending.”

Authorities are investigating the 26 circumstances proven in demise information, Deseda stated.


A number of knowledge sources recommend an “epidemic” or an “outbreak” of leptospirosis occurred within the aftermath of Hurricane Maria — however Puerto Rican officers will not name it that.

On Friday, the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention (CDC) launched its personal statistics on leptospirosis deaths on the Caribbean island underneath the US Freedom of Info Act. The interior CDC doc lists 17 “confirmed and possible” deaths after the hurricane during which laboratory checks present leptospirosis was an element — plus 25 extra “suspected” leptospirosis deaths that had been in want of additional lab affirmation.

Along with the deaths, there’s additionally proof leptospirosis diseases elevated.

The Puerto Rico Division of Well being advised CNN and CPI there have been 57 laboratory-confirmed circumstances of leptospirosis diseases in 2017 — 54 of them after Hurricane Maria, which hit September 20. That is a three- and four-fold improve in confirmed diseases over the earlier two years, in response to the figures offered. Evaluating months, the spike is sharper nonetheless — with 31 confirmed diseases in October 2017 in comparison with 4 the 12 months earlier than; and 16 diseases in November 2017, sixteen instances greater than the only confirmed sickness in November 2016.

There isn’t a internationally established threshold for declaring a leptospirosis “outbreak” or “epidemic,” in response to epidemiologists, lots of whom use these phrases virtually interchangeably. The CDC defines an epidemic usually as “a rise, usually sudden, within the variety of circumstances of a illness above what is generally anticipated in that inhabitants in that space.” Outbreaks usually discuss with “a extra restricted geographic space,” the CDC says.

Puerto Rican well being officers have cited conflicting thresholds they are saying are wanted to declare a leptospirosis epidemic. In November, Puerto Rico’s secretary of well being, Dr. Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, advised an area radio reporter “200 cases per week” had been wanted to make that declaration. Dr. Cruz María Nazario Delgado, a professor and epidemiologist on the College of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus, advised CNN and CPI that metric is “a bunch of nonsense.” (On Monday, Rodríguez Mercado advised CNN and CPI that he misspoke in that interview.)

In an interview with CNN and CPI on June 25, Deseda, Puerto Rico’s state epidemiologist, stated that officers would want to see a “twofold” improve in circumstances to declare an epidemic.

Then on Monday, after CNN and CPI questioned these inconsistencies, Deseda launched an announcement by a spokesman paraphrasing the CDC definition of an outbreak or epidemic — and including that it’s “not acceptable” to check the variety of diseases after the storm to earlier years. That is as a result of officers had been more-actively in search of leptospirosis diseases after Hurricane Maria and had been doing so utilizing totally different diagnostic checks, she stated.

Three consultants who reviewed knowledge for CNN and CPI stated it was clear from information that the federal government’s beforehand said “twofold” threshold for an epidemic had been met — if not far exceeded — primarily based on the truth that lab-confirmed diseases greater than doubled after Hurricane Maria.

One other strategy to assess the Well being Division knowledge, nonetheless, can be to have a look at each “confirmed” and “possible” leptospirosis diseases, consultants stated. Each are at the very least partially confirmed by laboratory checks. Trying on the numbers that manner reveals at the very least a “twofold” improve when evaluating October or November 2016 to 2017, however barely lower than two instances the variety of diseases — 1.6 instances — once you evaluate all of 2016 to the next 12 months.

Deseda advised CNN and CPI on June 25 that the Puerto Rico Division of Well being didn’t have entry to its personal laboratory checks within the chaotic aftermath of the high-powered storm, and that sufficient baseline knowledge wanted to declare an epidemic was not obtainable.

“Leptospirosis is a kind of ailments the place it’s extremely onerous to declare an epidemic,” Deseda stated, “as a result of, at the moment, there was no testing we might do to validate or verify the circumstances … It took about three or 4 weeks to ship samples (to the CDC) due to the heavy influence of the hurricane — and the devastating influence on our communications and energy provide.

“There was no manner our laboratory was able to put samples collectively. How might we declare an epidemic if we did not have that quantity (of confirmed circumstances) at the moment?”

Officers responded to the diseases urgently, she stated, warning the general public in regards to the risks of floodwaters, making certain hospitals had been equipped with antibiotics and telling physicians to deal with indicators of leptospirosis as if the illness had occurred, even when lab checks weren’t shortly obtainable.

On October 22, Public Affairs Secretary Ramon Rosario Cortes advised reporters that suspected circumstances of leptospirosis had been “neither an epidemic nor a confirmed outbreak.” “However clearly,” he added, “we’re making all of the bulletins as if it had been a well being emergency.”

‘The proof is simply incontrovertible’

Seven consultants — 5 epidemiologists and two medical docs who specialize within the associated ailments — advised CNN and CPI that Puerto Rico’s mortality database and its personal figures on confirmed leptospirosis diseases recommend that an “epidemic” or an “outbreak” occurred.

The labels “epidemic” and “outbreak” are vital, in response to public well being consultants, as a result of they will set off elevated surveillance for the illness and extra strong efforts to forestall an infection. In addition they assist the general public course of the severity of the state of affairs and take warnings severely, which might result in sickness prevention and higher remedy, consultants stated.

“In a state of affairs like this, after a pure catastrophe, the vital factor is to take management of the state of affairs — to not conceal the state of affairs,” stated Nazario, the professor and epidemiologist on the College of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus. Officers, she stated, had purpose to consider there was a major variety of circumstances of leptospirosis after Hurricane Maria.

The leptospirosis circumstances ought to have been categorised as an epidemic, Nazario stated, including that it’s shocking that officers proceed to be in “denial” that one occurred final 12 months. Puerto Rican well being officers had sufficient data to declare an epidemic even earlier than CDC checks grew to become obtainable to them, she stated.

“The Division of Well being was not doing its job”, she stated.

Luis Diaz Garcia keeps his brother's ashes in a box on his kitchen counter. He believes Ramon Diaz Garcia's death is related to Hurricane Maria.

The information reveals an “unrecognized epidemic,” stated Dr. Albert Icksang Ko, a professor and chair of the Division of Epidemiology of Microbial Illnesses on the Yale Faculty of Public Well being.

“The outbreak of leptospirosis that occurred after Hurricane Maria and related deaths had been predictable,” he stated. “Disasters, whether or not they happen in Puerto Rico or elsewhere all through the world, are triggers or drivers of leptospirosis … It actually emphasizes the challenges we now have in addressing leptospirosis public well being points in Puerto Rico,” he added. “This data ought to have been public and I am shocked you needed to sue as a way to get this data.”

“The true query is ‘why?'” stated Dr. Lemuel Martinez, an infectious illness specialist in Manati, Puerto Rico. “If that they had the information, why would they not declare [an epidemic] on the time? … This isn’t a matter of opinion. The information is there. Why would they withhold it?”

The numbers are beautiful, stated Vinetz, the united states professor. “The proof is simply incontrovertible that there is one thing happening — one thing vital happening,” he stated. “It is piffle to not name this an outbreak or an epidemic.”

A number of consultants harassed that leptospirosis is under-researched. Physicians usually miss or mis-diagnose the illness, which has signs that mirror different ailments like flu and dengue, together with “fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting/diarrhea, cough, conjunctival suffusion, jaundice, and typically a rash,” the CDC says. Untreated, in response to the CDC, an individual “might develop kidney harm, meningitis, liver failure, and respiratory misery.”

The opposite consultants saying an epidemic or outbreak ought to have been declared had been: Jonas Brant, a professor and epidemiologist on the College of Brasilia; Dr. Melissa Marzán Rodríguez, an epidemiologist and professor of infectious ailments at Ponce Well being Sciences College, in Puerto Rico; and Claudia Muñoz-Zanzi, an epidemiologist on the College of Minnesota Faculty of Public Well being, who stated that is the “definition” of an outbreak.

“We have to improve consciousness about leptospirosis and about these outbreaks — and (about) the necessity to do extra analysis as a way to detect these outbreaks as early as doable” and to say how greatest to reply, stated Muñoz-Zanzi. “With out [public officials] declaring outbreaks, we can’t do this as a result of we do not have the information we have to set up these suggestions.”

Worldwide, the illness is estimated to contribute to greater than 1 million diseases and almost 60,000 deaths per 12 months, the CDC says.

Two extra consultants stated an outbreak might have been declared — however wouldn’t go as far as to say that it ought to have been declared by Puerto Rican authorities with out higher baseline knowledge and with out understanding precisely what officers did and didn’t know on the time.

Dr. Brenda Rivera García, a former state epidemiologist in Puerto Rico, stated there may be clear baseline knowledge obtainable for officers to evaluate whether or not an epidemic occurred. On reflection, she stated, there was a major improve in circumstances in a brief timeframe — however she’s not sure if the Well being Division had all the mandatory data on the time to declare an epidemic.

‘Nearly non-existent’

CNN and CPI investigated a complete of 4 deaths labeled in authorities knowledge as having been associated to leptospirosis that had been uncounted as a part of the Hurricane Maria demise toll.

After interviewing family and neighbors, consulting with consultants on the illness and, in a single case, reviewing hospital information, at the very least two of those uncounted deaths seemed to be associated to Hurricane Maria, primarily based on CDC-established standards for catastrophe deaths.

Not less than one case seemed to be unrelated to the storm.

Jose A. Sanchez Vazquez, 58 was hospitalized earlier than Hurricane Maria hit, in response to Ana Sanchez, his sister. He died 4 days after Hurricane Maria, information present. As a result of he bought sick earlier than Hurricane Maria made landfall, Ana Sanchez doesn’t contemplate his demise storm-related.

In Bayamon, a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, Ricardo A. Cotto Rodriguez, 48, who was identified in his neighborhood for his humor and for being the fanatic water boy for the Vaqueros, the native basketball workforce, died on November 17, information present. Relations advised CNN Cotto was primarily bedridden after the storm and that his mattress sores grew to become contaminated.

He was hospitalized after he fell and have become caught within the bathe, they stated, when there was no electrical energy within the space. Gilberto Rodriguez Quiñones, his cousin, stated his demise seems to have been associated to Hurricane Maria due to that fall, which he stated occurred in darkness, with out energy. But it surely was unclear how he might have contracted a waterborne sickness.

The federal government database lists “leptospirosis,” “persistent ulcer of pores and skin” and “weight problems” among the many contributors to Cotto’s demise. His demise certificates says leptospirosis “probably” contributed.

Ana Sanchez says her brother's death, labeled "leptospirosis" in government records, is not related to Hurricane Maria.

In two different circumstances, nonetheless, relations and neighbors of the deceased described circumstances that medical professionals say are according to leptospirosis.

Each males had been working in aid efforts after the storm, placing them involved with flood waters that, in response to consultants, would improve their probabilities of an infection.

And neither, in response to relations, was given gloves, boots or prophylactic antibiotics, which public well being consultants say can be utilized to forestall leptospirosis an infection.

Deseda, the state epidemiologist, stated aid staff got preventative assist. Officers adequately publicized the dangers of leptospirosis, she stated, and antibiotics had been obtainable at hospitals. When pressed, she didn’t state clearly whether or not medication had been used preventatively.

She defended Puerto Rico’s efforts to warn the general public in regards to the illness, saying she appeared on tv and the radio warning folks to steer clear of probably contaminated waters and trash — locations the place urine from rats and different animals might have been discovered.

Martinez, the physician in Manati, Puerto Rico, stated communications from the Well being Division about leptospirosis had been “virtually non-existent, at greatest.” They largely centered, he stated, on denying an outbreak was occurring and telling physicians to deal with sufferers no matter lab checks.

‘It shocked me’

In Toa Baja, Luis Diaz Garcia, 55, advised CNN and CPI that his youthful brother, Ramon Diaz Garcia, 52, was usually wholesome earlier than the storm. He immediately grew to become sick after which disappeared after spending weeks volunteering with cleanup efforts, Luis Diaz stated. The household spent a month in agony, not realizing what had occurred earlier than a relative contacted the Bureau of Forensic Sciences in San Juan. The database reveals Ramon Diaz’s demise on October 26 was reviewed by the Bureau of Forensic Sciences, which didn’t conduct an post-mortem.

“Leptospirosis” is listed among the many contributors to his demise within the information.

“The pathologists advised us that he had a wierd colour, that he appeared yellowish,” Luis Diaz stated. “They requested if he had hepatitis, and we stated, ‘No, he was wholesome.'”

Martinez, the infectious illness specialist, stated yellow pores and skin is a transparent signal of leptospirosis, particularly when it is accompanied by acute fever and happens after a storm. “If somebody turns yellow after a hurricane, that is leptospirosis until confirmed in any other case,” he stated.

Puerto Rico’s Bureau of Forensic Sciences is allowed to categorise deaths as hurricane-related. But Ramon Diaz’s identify doesn’t seem on Puerto Rico’s record of 64 hurricane victims.

Ramon Diaz Garcia's room in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, is hauntingly empty.

Ramon Diaz didn’t have identification on him when he went to the hospital, his brother stated. Forensics staff advised Luis Diaz that if the household hadn’t contacted them his physique would have been cremated in a matter of days and would have remained unidentified, he advised CNN and CPI.

“It shocked me,” Luis Diaz stated.

“He was cool with everybody. He would assist anybody who wanted it,” Luis Diaz stated of his brother, considered one of 13 siblings. “That man would put you to sleep speaking and speaking — telling jokes!”

Ramon Diaz was dwelling with him on the time of the storm, Luis Diaz stated. Ramon Diaz’s room is now hauntingly empty. The blades of a fan are immobile on the ground. A clock that hasn’t labored for years hangs on the wall, caught simply after four p.m. A mattress is crumpled within the nook.

Luis Diaz struggles to grasp why his brother stays uncounted.

“I do not know what to inform you,” he stated, showing choked up by the query.

He retains his brother’s ashes in a field on the kitchen counter.

‘He sacrificed himself’

Daniel L. Vick, the younger father in Cayey, is also uncounted.

The 31-year-old, who beloved the seashore, karaoke nights and watching his 7-year-old dance salsa, spent his days after Hurricane Maria wading by floodwaters to assist neighbors as an worker of town of Cayey, family stated. His demise on October 19, which Puerto Rico mortality information label as “precipitated” by “leptospirosis,” shouldn’t be counted as a hurricane demise.

The doctor who licensed his demise, Dr. Julio Garcia at Centro Médico Menonita de Cayey, advised CNN and CPI {that a} native laboratory check indicated he had leptospirosis.

Earlier than his third and remaining hospitalization, relations and neighbors stated, he was seen popping out of his home with jaundiced, yellowed pores and skin — one other signal.

Margarita Rodriguez stated her son was in “excellent well being” earlier than the storm.

Officers declined to touch upon the deaths of Vick or Diaz past saying that that they had not been formally categorised as associated to Hurricane Maria. One of many two circumstances — both Vick or Diaz — was confirmed by laboratory checks as having been attributable to leptospirosis, stated Deseda. She refused to say which of the 2 it was, nonetheless, including that the lab-confirmed leptospirosis demise was not counted as hurricane-related due to the date it occurred.

Daniel L. Vick's family left a pair of his shoes at a memorial for uncounted victims of Hurricane Maria in San Juan.

Rodriguez stated she pleaded together with her son to remain alive.

“You must be robust,” she recollects telling her son within the hospital. “We want you right here — on your daughter, on your spouse, and to maintain serving to your group. We want you right here.”

“You would see tears working down his face” as medical professionals intubated him, pushing a tube down his airway so he might proceed to breathe, she stated in an interview. “You would inform by trying in his eyes that he did not wish to shut his eyes — to let himself go.”

“He sacrificed himself,” she added. “He gave all the things … He needs to be thought of a hero.”

“I simply need him to be remembered,” she stated.

Margarita Rodriguez will keep in mind her son as a shy, type, caring and considerate man, a person who beloved his household and beloved his work, who hardly ever stepped into the highlight however whose price was measured in all he quietly did to assist others, particularly after Maria.

His widow, Ingrid Nieves García, 29, left a pair of his sneakers at an impromptu public memorial for victims of Hurricane Maria on the Puerto Rican capitol constructing in San Juan.

In early June, mourners positioned 1000’s of empty sneakers close to the steps to symbolize uncounted victims.

Leaving Vick’s sneakers there was vital “as a result of I by no means had the area or second to say goodbye in his funeral. It was simply not in me to try this again then,” she advised CNN and CPI. “I consider the second I introduced his sneakers (to the memorial), which had been the very last thing I had left from him, it helped me to let go, to say goodbye. It was solely then once I lastly let him relaxation.”

After his demise, a psychologist advised Daniel Vick’s daughter that her father is in heaven, an angel watching over her — that God wanted him to be up there with him, his mom stated.

“Possibly later,” a neighbor stated, “she’s going to perceive what occurred.”

Cristian Arroyo, Michael Nedelman and Laura Moscoso contributed to this report.

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