Renal carriage and shedding of leptospires is characteristic of carrier or maintenance animal hosts. Sporadic reports indicate that after infection, humans may excrete leptospires for extended periods. We hypothesized that, like mammalian reservoir hosts, humans develop asymptomatic leptospiruria in settings of high disease transmission such as the Peruvian Amazon.
Using a cross-sectional study design, we used a combination of epidemiological data, serology and molecular detection of the leptospiral 16S rRNA gene to identify asymptomatic urinary shedders of Leptospira. Approximately one-third of the 314 asymptomatic participants had circulating anti-leptospiral antibodies. Among enrolled participants, 189/314 (59%) had evidence of recent infection (microscopic agglutination test (MAT0 ≥1∶800 or ELISA IgM-positive or both). The proportion of MAT-positive and high MAT-titer (≥1∶800) persons was higher in men than women ( p = 0.006). Among these people, 13/314 (4.1%) had Leptospira DNA-positive urine samples. Of these, the 16S rRNA gene from 10 samples was able to be sequenced. The urine-derived species clustered within both pathogenic (n = 6) and intermediate clades of Leptospira (n = 4). All of the thirteen participants with leptospiral DNA in urine were women. The median age of the DNA-positive group was older compared to the negative group ( p≤0.05). A group of asymptomatic participants (“long-term asymptomatic individuals,” 102/341 (32.5%) of enrolled individuals) without serological evidence of recent infection was identified; within this group, 6/102 (5.9%) excreted pathogenic and intermediate-pathogenic Leptospira (75–229 bacteria/mL of urine).
Asymptomatic renal colonization of leptospires in a region of high disease transmission is common, including among people without serological or clinical evidence of recent infection. Both pathogenic and intermediate Leptospira can persist as renal colonization in humans. The pathogenic significance of this finding remains to be explored but is of fundamental biological significance.
Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease commonly transmitted from animals to humans. The more than 200 types of spiral-shaped bacteria (spirochetes) in the genus Leptospira are classified as pathogenic, intermediately pathogenic, or saprophytic (meaning not causing infection in any mammal) based on their ability to cause disease and on genetic information. Unique among the spirochetes that infect humans, Leptospira live both in the environment (in surface waters and moist soils), and in mammals, where they cause chronic infection by colonizing kidney tubules. Infected animals are the source of human infection, but humans have not been systematically studied as chronic Leptospira carriers. In our study, we found that more than 5% of people (in fact, only women) in a rural Amazonian village, without clinical evidence of infection by Leptospira, were chronically colonized by the bacteria. Chronic infection was not associated with a detectable immune response against the spirochete. Pathogenic and intermediately pathogenic Leptospira caused asymptomatic, chronic kidney infections. Future work is needed to determine whether such chronic infection can lead to human-to-human transmission of leptospirosis, and whether subtle measures of kidney disease are associated with asymptomatic, long-term leptospiral infection.