14 October 2002

Innovative research aimed at beating the debilitating human disease leptospirosis in the tropical north is under way at the University of Queensland.

A scientific study of rodent populations in banana plantations at Innisfail and Tully is an important step to controlling the spread of the disease.

Wildlife experts in UQ Gatton`s School of Animal Studies are developing the project in collaboration with the banana industry and Queensland Health.

Luke Leung, a wildlife biology lecturer and project supervisor, says the high incidence of leptospirosis among banana field workers is a major concern.

The globally-important disease spreads to humans through water or soil contaminated with urine of infected animals. It causes a range of severe influenza-like symptoms and in rare cases can lead to death.

Dr Leung said there were many different strains of the disease, some more virulent than others.

"This research project is important because we need to know which rodent species in the region are carrying and spreading which strains," he said.

"When we have this information, it will be possible to develop ecologically-based pest management targeted at the species of interest.

"The farmers have been extremely supportive as has Queensland Health which has made its laboratories in Brisbane available for the project."

Supervising Scientist Lee Smythe is a leading epidemiologist in leptospirosis and the reference laboratory is one of only three in the world.

The first phase of an extensive trapping program on farms at Innisfail and Tully has been completed by overseas Masters student Dario Rivera, with more than 200 rodents captured for study.

Mr Rivera, who comes from Honduras, said the research would be extremely relevant to the large tropical banana industry in his home country.

He completed a science degree in the United States majoring in biology and came upon the challenging new study opportunity while travelling in Australia.

The trapping program has captured several different species of rats and mice in banana fields. Blood samples have been taken from all animals captured and a selection of kidneys also collected for laboratory analysis.

Mr Rivera said a second round of trapping was planned in early 2003 to compare rodent populations in banana fields between the dry and wet seasons.

Media: For more information, contact Dr Luke Leung at UQ Gatton (telephone 07 5460 1264) or Anthony Smith (telephone 0409 265587).