Bacterial disease deaths in Puerto Rico hit ‘epidemic’ level after Hurricane Maria: report

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After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico saw a spike in deaths from a bacterial disease to the point that it should have been labeled an “epidemic,” according to medical experts who analyzed previously unreleased data for CNN.

The number of deaths caused by leptospirosis doubled after the Category 5 hurricane devastated the island last year, CNN reported, with 26 people dying from the bacterial disease in the six months after Maria. The figures were obtained by CNN in conjunction with the Center for Investigative Journalism.


The bacterial disease is often contracted from water and soil in the aftermath of storms. Puerto Rican officials have cast doubt on the number of deaths directly related to the hurricane.

Officials told CNN they are only classifying leptospirosis deaths as hurricane-related if they occurred in the months after the storm, a method that would discount five of the deaths. Twenty-one of the deaths occurred shortly after Hurricane Maria made landfall in September.

The Puerto Rico Department of Health told CNN and the Center for Investigative Journalism there were 57 cases of leptospirosis illnesses last year, 54 of which emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

CNN asked seven medical experts to review data on the deaths caused by leptospirosis, and all of them agreed the number of cases reached outbreak levels.

“Twenty-six deaths attributed to leptospirosis — that’s extraordinary,” Dr. Joseph Vinetz, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Diego, told CNN. “The numbers are huge.”


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