By Emma Cornish Jacobsen
It’s summer on Kaua‘i, and the pair of bare feet on the farmer in front of me had clearly seen better days — sliced up from daily work on his taro farm. But that fact, and his encouragement to remove my shoes did absolutely nothing to deter me from climbing, toes first, into the lo‘i patch ahead of me.
Unfortunately, the drive to Urgent Care in Lihu‘e after cutting my foot open on a snail shell wasn’t quite as exciting.
While snails may be recognized by the state Department of Agriculture as a pest in taro fields, the more specific reason why most of us shouldn’t walk barefoot in taro patches has more to do with the creatures living upstream than sharp snail shells lurking in the lo‘i mud where community members farm.
Feral pigs, rats and cats are a common topic of debate here on Kaua‘i, since each cause disruption to the native ecosystem, farms and present clear health risks to humans. What many of us don’t realize is that these animals can get us sick without ever coming into direct contact with us. The culprit in this case is Leptospirosis: a disease transmitted by bacteria present in many freshwater systems across the state of Hawai‘i.
Humans come into indirect contact with the bacteria Leptospira via animal urine present in the river system, including mud and moist soil on farms. Incidents of leptospirosis have been reported from simply swimming in infected water sources, but generally, bacteria require an open wound to enter the body.
While nursing my sliced up toe in a doctor’s office in Lihu‘e, I learned that Kaua‘i cases of Leptospirosis are highly concentrated in Wailua and Hanalei.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, cases linked to farmers’ livelihood were namely those who cultivate taro. Localized in areas where lots of wetland taro farming takes place, this really does put farmers practicing traditional taro-culture at a disproportionate risk. Being a cautious outdoorsperson is a straightforward solution to avoiding infection. I am curious though, what can be done for those who have a livelihood tied into traditional agriculture?
Resolutions proposed at this point often overlap with solutions to other existing issues. For example, controlling the population of invasive, feral mammals is already encouraged as they disturb native forests and spread other infectious diseases. Visitors are also discouraged from swimming in slow moving, fresh water on account of other bacterial diseases.
Posing a risk to visitors and locals, leptospirosis threatens more then just the occasional swimmer. Safeguarding local knowledge will require protecting those embedded directly in the business of sharing traditional agriculture. When thinking about the systems currently in place on the island, Kaua‘i places a considerable amount of importance on local agriculture. Not only is it a way of life, but a way to preserve knowledge through practice and building resilience in our community.
If you think you may have been exposed, symptoms of leptospirosis infection include high fever, headaches and chills accompanied by muscle aches, nausea and jaundice of skin. Incubation can last as long as 24 days, and symptoms may wax and wane. Treatment usually includes strong antibiotics, but more importantly, if left untreated, serious cases result in hospitalization and sometimes death.
- Emma Cornish Jacobsen is a writer and environmentalist on the North Shore of Kaua‘i. In 2015, she earned a BA in Environmental Studies, with a focus in Environmental Writing and Literature from the University of Montana. She currently works as a Youth & Food Programs Coordinator, AmeriCorps VISTA for Malama Kaua‘i, where she hopes to address issues of food security and sustainability on Kaua‘i.