KUALA LUMPUR - Taking a dip in a waterfall or pond may seem innocent enough. But at least two people have died doing so in the last two months.
With the school holidays and hot weather, the Health Ministry is alerting school children and their parents to be extra careful not to contract the highly infectious leptospirosis disease while vacationing in natural water spots.
So far this year, there have been 14 outbreaks of the rat urine disease and 2,200 people infected, said the ministry.
Recreational areas accounted for 32 per cent and 22 per cent of these outbreaks in the past two years.
A single gulp of water from a river, pond or waterfall, coming into contact with soil or swimming in natural water spots with small open wounds can expose people to the disease which killed 78 people last year.
Health deputy director-general (public health) Datuk Dr Lokman Hakim Sulaiman said the ministry had conducted tests for the disease in 71 natural water spots nationwide last year and found that 11 per cent (or eight sites) were found to have traces of the disease.
This, however, did not guarantee that sites which tested negative were completely free of the disease, he said.
He said the risk of leptospirosis was proportionate to rodent density, which is affected by sanitation and hygiene, especially in terms of access to food waste.
"Poor cleanliness/sanitation in recreational areas may increase the risk of contamination," Dr Lokman said.
Scraps left behind by visitors become food sources for rats and other wildlife, whose droppings end up poisoning the natural water sites.
He called on vacationers to keep these tourist sites clean, thus controlling the population of rodents and other animals at the site.
"Cleanliness makes a difference," he said.
Kelantan accounted for the highest number of cases with 365, followed by Sarawak with 362 cases and Terengganu with 323 cases.
However. Selangor accounted for nearly half of the outbreaks this year, according to the Health Ministry.
Symptoms for the disease include high fever, diarrhoea, muscle aches and headaches, chills, nausea and vomiting.
In May, a Seremban college student contracted leptospirosis while swimming in the Jeram Toi Recreation Park in Jelebu. He died two weeks later.
Two other vacationers there were also reported to be admitted into the intensive care unit (ICU) after a visit to the park.
In April, an 18-year-old polytechnic student died of leptospirosis after bathing in a picnic spot in Lata Sedim, Kedah a month earlier.
In October last year, the Gunung Pulai Recreational Forest had to be closed for three months after samples from a waterfall there tested positive for leptospirosis.
While the risk is there, it doesn't mean a holiday needs to be ruined.
Vacationers can still have fun if they take proper care of themselves at holiday spots.
Dr Lokman said maintaining one's personal hygiene and choosing clean food premises would reduce the risk of contracting the disease at hotspots.
"Avoid leisure activities in potentially contaminated areas, or swimming in waterfalls that are not properly maintained.
"Avoid swimming in and drinking raw water from natural water bodies or ponds.
"People should close skin wounds with waterproof bandages and wear protective clothing like rubber boots and gloves to avoid exposure," he added.