Reports of increasing numbers of rats have caused concern at public meetings on St Helena. They’re a threat to the island’s critically endangered wirebird, but they also pose a serious risk to humans.
By the time Henry Thorpe realised he was seriously ill, he could no longer even crawl to the phone to call for medical help.
He’d gone down with rat fever, as it’s known on St Helena, but for three days he thought it was just a passing illness.
“I had diarrhoea and I was vomiting and it wasted the muscles in my legs – but not my arms.
“On about the fourth day I realised it wasn’t a flu, and that’s when I dragged myself to the phone with my hands along the floor. I called them up and said, ‘I think I need to go to hospital.'”
Henry – now a student in the UK – told his story to St Helena Online as complaints began emerging of growing numbers of rats on the island.
He was at high risk of being infected with rat fever – correctly known as leptospirosis – because he kept pigs.
St Helena Government has confirmed that five pest controllers are being laid off and its poisoning routine has been gradually changed because of rising costs, but it says it has not had evidence of increased rat numbers.
Ironically, one of Henry’s jobs when he worked at Thorpe’s, the family business in Jamestown, was to order up supplies of poison for Saints who were reluctant to buy it through the government.
He now knows all too well the dangers of catching leptospirosis – or Weil’s Disease – from the rats that came to the island on sailing ships in the days of the East India Company.
The disease is easily treated in most cases, but only if people realise how ill they are, and seek help.
“It’s a really serious thing. People have died because the symptoms are so flu-like – exactly like flu that doesn’t go away.”
Henry, son of Nick and Gail Thorpe, was lucky. He was a fit young man, and he pulled through.
“They put me on a drip and a penicillin antibiotic thing that I think they also give to people with acne. I thought that was strange.
“I was in hospital for about four days, not being able to use my legs properly, and after that I was on crutches for a bit. I did lose muscle in my arm, but you’re not holding up 80kg so you only notice it in your legs.
“I’ve probably done damage to my liver – I looked a bit jaundiced.”
At the time – about five years ago – Henry was living at his father’s home at Woodlands.
“I’m not sure how I contracted it. It needs to get into your blood. I think I got it from walking round in bare feet or feeding pigs. They throw food around and it attracts rats.
“The spring was dry, so I wasn’t really able to wash my hands properly.”
It is possible for pigs or dogs to infect people with leptospira bacteria, but it is far more commonly spread by rats. Farmers are especially at risk.
While he was still in hospital, Henry gave an interview about his experience to Mike Olsson, who was then editor of the St Helena Herald. It would be some weeks before test results came back from South Africa to confirm that he had rat fever.
He says he was “told off” by a doctor, because the diagnosis was unconfirmed. “He probably thought it was going to cause a panic on the island – and it could have been flu. I felt slightly vindicated when the results did come back.
“It felt like they were hushing it up – ‘There’s no lepto here.’ I think it probably is an issue people should be made aware of.
“I suspect many cases go undiagnosed because people think it is flu, so I don’t know whether they just call it flu and blank everything with antibiotics.
“Perhaps because the cure is so simple, with a drug that targets so many bacteria, people weren’t that interested in what it was.”
Mild leptospirosis causes headaches, chills and muscle pain. The severe form can cause organ failure and internal bleeding. Most people only develop the milder symptoms.
People under five or over 65 are more at risk – as are people who already have a serious condition, such as pneumonia. Experts believe the fatality rate is between 5% and 25% worldwide, but poor records in many countries mean that is only a guess.
Dr Anthea Goode, who worked on St Helena in the 1990s, says medics on the island know the risk. “The real thing is to be aware of it.
“In the UK you might miss it because it’s so rare but on St helena you’re thinking about it all the time. The symptoms people tend to get are red-eye and muscle aches. You can get pneumonia, and bad headaches.”
Dr S J Wooltorton wrote about the disease in his book, A Doctor’s Thoughts On St Helena, published in 1988.
He said rat fever was “relatively common” on the island.
“A high fever with vigorous shaking, severe muscle pains, headache and vomiting herald the onset.
“The bacteria invade all parts of the body, damaging the muscles, kidneys, liver, heart and lungs.
“Blood leaks into the urine from the swollen kidneys, jaundice develops as the liver fails, the heart races to maintain the blood pressure, and any pressure on the muscles of the arms or legs causes considerable pain.
“The obvious warning to us all is to keep rats and mice away from any drinking or swimming water.”
With hindsight, Henry says he should have sought help much sooner. “I think a lot of Saints would go to the doctor earlier. When I go to the doctor I’ve got to be dying.”
Ask his parents, and they’ll say he nearly did die.
- St Helena Government says the island has had no confirmed cases of leptospirosis in recent years.