Three Category 4 hurricanes struck Puerto Rico in less than a month in 2017, causing billions of dollars in damage: Harvey, Irma and Maria. The last, Maria, was a direct hit with winds of 155 mph.
Although scenes of devastation in Puerto Rico are no longer on the news—one Georgia College graduate student and Puerto Rican native, Zamara Garcia Truitt, is still working to find out why residents there got sick and why some died.
“It was awful. It was very devastating,” Truitt said. “A lot of people did not have electricity or water for months. That’s why a lot of them went to the creeks and rivers to wash clothes and to drink water, and that’s where this pathogenetic bacteria lives.”
That fall, Truitt got right to work as an undergraduate in Dr. Dave Bachoon’s microbiology lab. She helped detect the bacteria leptospira in water samples from Puerto Rico. Now, Truitt’s back in the lab getting her master’s in biology, and she’s made leptospira the subject of her thesis.
Truitt moved to the United States with her mother in 2008, but her father still lives in Canovanas, Puerto Rico. She kept in contact with him during the storm and aftermath.
Along with other Georgia College students who helped—Truitt examined water samples from 32 coastal locations in Puerto Rico. Some were collected before the hurricanes; others directly after. Fifty more samples just arrived from Puerto Rico in early February.
Having before-and-after samples helps the team differentiate between wet and dry seasons. They extract DNA from water samples and use specific DNA sequences to detect the bacteria.
“What we’re doing is very similar to forensics to determine what killed someone,” Bachoon said. “Basically, it’s the same procedure. All these procedures are based on the DNA signature.”
“As far as I know,” he said, “we’re the only ones testing for this water pathogen in Puerto Rico. There’s limited information on this. So, whatever we find will add something useful.”
The group discovered leptospira is more prevalent in wet, humid conditions.
Hurricanes bring more water and humidity to already tropical countries. The 2017 storms caused power failures in Puerto Rico. Water treatment plants malfunctioned and overflowed with sewage. Water dispersed everywhere, flowing into streams, rivers and creeks. Without running water, the impoverished were forced to collect freshwater for drinking and bathing.
Rats carry leptospira in their urine as well. Flooding forces rats to move into areas populated by humans. Their urine infects food supplies and causes illness. Cattle, mongoose, frogs and dogs can be carriers too. People get sick by coming in contact with contaminated food, water and animal urine through open wounds or mucus.
Leptospira causes leptospirosis—a flulike disease with high fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting, rash, jaundice and red eye. Once the eyes turn red, Truitt said, it’s a sign the illness is turning into the more-deadly “Weils Syndrome.” It affects young children, the sick and elderly. Weils causes liver and kidney damage, meningitis, heart or respiratory failure and death.
“Leptospira reproduces in the kidneys of its host,” Truitt said. “It can live in the environment for up to 74 days. It can stay viable and infectious.”
The graduate student wants to warn Puerto Ricans of these hazards. She said it’s “exciting and eye opening” to do research that helps people in her native country. She and Bachoon work with a professor from the University of Puerto Rico, who will share research results with government agencies to educate the public.
“I am very passionate about it, because Puerto Rico is my home,” Truitt said. “I want to do more research and bring more awareness and prevention methods to the people there. If they avoid bathing in waters that carry the bacteria, if they wear shoes and take protective measures and boil contaminated water, then the situation can be controlled.”
In November 2017, Truitt presented information on leptospira at the Annual American Society for Microbiology Regional Conference in Tampa. Her research with Bachoon is also being submitted to a scientific journal.
Bachoon’s lab group will continue analyzing water samples from Puerto Rico. They want to see if leptospira incidents are increasing. They also hope to conduct studies on the island’s rats to confirm them as carriers.
Unfortunately, Bachoon said, problems like these only get attention and funding when large numbers of people are dying. With global warming, he said, hurricanes will strengthen and hit fragile islands like Puerto Rico more often.
With increased flooding, leptospirosis will continue to spread.
“The problem can become much more prevalent,” Bachoon said. “By studying it now, we might be able to prevent more sickness and death.”