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Leptospirosis – no longer the rural farmer’s disease



Making a breakthrough in the study of leptospirosis, a bacterial infection transmitted from animals, a team of Sri Lankan researchers in a collaborative endeavour has discovered six new genotypes of this largely undermined tropical disease. In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Island, they throw light on the findings of their research which are now in international literature enabling new knowledge on the world’s commonest zoonotic disease.

by Randima Attygalle

No longer considered the ‘rural farmer’s disease’, leptospirosis, commonly called rat fever or mee una in Sinhala, is changing its dynamics, urging clinicians, health policy-makers and the public to revisit this common tropical disease of both humans and animals. The bacterium that causes leptospirosis is spread through the urine of infected animals, which can get into water or soil and can survive there for weeks or months. Many different kinds of wild and domestic animals carry the bacterium including cattle, pigs, rodents, dogs, horses and wild animals.

Humans can become infected with the bacterium either through contact with urine of an infected animal or with water or soil contaminated with the urine of infected animals. The bacteria can enter the body through skin, eyes, nose or mouth. Outbreaks of leptospirosis are usually caused by exposure to contaminated water, such as floodwaters. It is a serious occupational hazard for those working outdoors such as farmers, miners etc. and professionals such as veterinarians in close contact with animals. According to global research findings, around one million cases of leptospirosis and 58,900 deaths are estimated to occur worldwide each year. More than 70% of the deaths are reported from the tropical, poorest regions of the world.

A re-merging disease here at home, leptospirosis has gained much attention since the large outbreak in 2008. “The annual incidence of leptospirosis that had required hospitalization from 2008 to 2015 was 52.1 per 100,000 people, with an estimated case fatality rate of 7.0% according to National Health Bulletin data. In 2018 there was another resurgence in numbers. The disease is no more a ‘seasonal’ one as it was conventionally known to be, resulting in multiple outbreaks per year, notably during rainy seasons. Manifestations of the disease have also changed, with a wide array of new clinical entities such as pulmonary haemorrhage (bleeding into the lungs), pancreatitis, and myocarditis coupled with high case fatality. These shifts in the disease call for new strategies, new interventions and the need to reorganize ourselves as the health care sector,” says Dr. Panduka Karunanayake, Senior Lecturer from the Department of Clinical Medicine, University of Colombo.

The purpose of this research project between researchers from several local institutions (Medical Research Institute and Base Hospital Elpitiya under the Ministry of Health, and University of Peradeniya and University of Colombo) and Japan (National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Tokyo, and Graduate School of Infectious Diseases and Institute of Genetic Medicine of Hokkaido University) had been to identify the serogroups and genetic groups of Leptospira organisms that are found here at home. “This knowledge is important to better understand the new clinical manifestations for their early diagnosis and treatment, and to know the carrier animal for specific control measures, as this disease is carried by animals,” explains Dr. Karunanayake.

A laborious process, first, the organisms need to be ‘isolated’ (grown) in artificial culture, and thereafter artificially ‘maintained’ (kept alive) in culture media. This needs specialized laboratories with biosafety measures. The National Reference Laboratory (NRL) for Leptospirosis at the MRI offers this service to hospitals routinely. “Organisms were isolated from blood of patients affected by the 2015-2017 leptospirosis outbreak from the Base Hospital in Elpitiya and animal kidney tissue from Kandy. Once they were successfully grown and maintained in culture, they were sent to Japan for the genetic characterization which was done for us by the Japanese collaborator (Dr. Nobuo Koizumi, National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), Japan),” says Dr Karunanayake.

The genetic characterization and serogroup analyses were done in NIID, Japan which demonstrated that these strains belonged to three genetically-defined species. “When their genotypic strains were analyzed, it was found that the isolates belong to 15 different strains, of which six were not described before in the world literature, hence treated as ‘novel genotypes’. Of these, three were from patients treated at the Base Hospital in Elpitiya. They were causing multiple complications such as kidney, liver, heart and lung involvement and septic shock. However, all of these patients survived,” says Dr. Karunanayake.

Although leptospirosis had been prevalent in our country since the 1950s, it has been changing its nature in the last decade. “While the number of cases are increasing alarmingly, the clinical picture too is changing, with the identification of new and troublesome complications including pulmonary haemorrhage, pancreatic involvement, heart involvement, community-acquired sepsis, etc.” he said. The disease is also affecting a wider group of people, such as those living in urban areas and people exposed only briefly to stagnant waters or floods.

“After 40 years since Dr. K. Nityananda’s work in the 1960s and 1970s at the NRL, we have been able to introduce new strains for the first time to the world literature on leptospirosis, again from the NRL,” observes Dr. Lilani Karunanayake, Consultant Clinical Microbiologist and Head/National Reference Laboratory for Leptospirosis at the Medical Research Institute. The emergence of new genotypes, as she points out, imply the importance of strict quarantine of imported cattle as well as other imported domestic animals that are potential reservoirs of leptospirosis. “Unintentional introduction of rodent reservoirs through improper garbage disposal and the existence of unidentified reservoir animals in the country also call for attention,” says the senior microbiologist who further says that new knowledge from this study will be valuable in future research for patient management and specifically-targeted control approaches for reservoir hosts in the prevention and control of leptospirosis in Sri Lanka. She extended her thanks to the clinicians from various hospitals who sent in samples, which enabled these discoveries in the best interest of people.

The National Reference Laboratory (NRL) for Leptospirosis at the MRI which serves as the central referral laboratory in the country performs certain specific leptospirosis tests, samples for which are sent from hospitals island-wide. “Although certain tests could be performed at peripheral levels, some of the advanced cases need to be referred to the central lab,” notes Dr. Karunanayake, adding that the Teaching Hospitals at regional level should be strengthened with testing facilities for early detection.

Non-specific features of the patients such as fever, headaches, body aches, diarrhea which could mimic other conditions such as dengue has rendered early detection of leptospirosis very challenging, says Dr. Sajiv De Silva, Consultant Physician, Base Hospital, Balapitiya. “Hence kidney complications and the lung involvement are two specific features we give attention to in our investigations which often require intensive care. We also take serious account of the patient’s exposure to paddy fields and muddy water. In the Elpitiya patient cluster which we took as our research sample, the kidney complications and pulmonary haemorrhage were very severe which enabled us to add the new genotypes from this cluster to the world literature on leptospirosis.” He further remarks that these genotypes are more virulent than those found in the Western Province. Similar to the cluster in Elpitiya, more recent samples from patients in Galle, Balapitiya and Udugama in the Southern Province have reflected more severe complications, particularly lung and kidney complications which trigger rapid deterioration of the patient.

Patient demographic changes are also significant as the research reveals, points out Dr. De Silva. “Apart from farmers and miners who were traditionally identified as the most vulnerable to the disease, today we find a considerable percentage of young patients who had contacted it by merely visiting a paddy field or bathing in a river.” Diagnosing leptospirosis has become a “dilemma” for the physicians at the peripheral level, observes the Consultant who adds that, blurring lines between dengue and leptospirosis makes it more challenging. “In both situations platelets will drop. However in the treatment of dengue, while fluids need to be administered proportionate to the urine output, in the case of leptospirosis, fluids cannot be administered to mitigate pulmonary hemorrhage.”

Reiterating on the urgency of seeking early hospital care, the physician notes, “the earlier they come, faster the laboratory diagnosis would be.” Although clinical diagnosis of leptospirosis was not possible in the first few days of symptoms, today the availability of the PCR test (free in the state health sector) makes this possible, he adds. The toll the disease takes on families and the national health budget cannot be undermined. In a bid to create awareness on prevention of it by promoting safety footwear and early detection among the communities at rural level, a programme is now in place facilitated by the MOHs and PHIs says Dr. De Silva.

The breakthrough research is also a reflection of the validity of the ‘One Health’ concept where collaborative health efforts of multiple disciplines working nationally and globally can attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment, observes Dr. Chandika Gamage, Veterinarian and Senior Lecturer from the Department of Microbiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya. “Pathogens isolated from rats and humans in a molecular study during the research had revealed same genetic strain types which have enabled us to enlarge our knowledge on leptospirosis,” explains Dr. Gamage.

Although traditionally leptospirosis had been considered a disease spread by rats (‘natural reservoirs’), it is now becoming clear that there are other animals, such as cattle, that harbour the bacteria and spread it, points out Dr. Gamage. The research had further thrown light on dairy cattle as a potent reservoir of the disease. They are often grazed on grassland infected with rat urine and can can set off a vicious cycle, says the Veterinarian. “One excretion of cattle urine can be an amplifier pathogen of leptospirosis.”

Concurrent studies in humans, animals and environmental sampling can determine how these interact to bring about disease in humans which validates the One Health approach, says the Veterinarian. Furthermore, diverse sero groups were found in this study to cause both human disease and that present in animals like cattle and buffalo, pointing towards the need for new preventive strategies to control human leptospirosis in Sri Lanka, he says. Research will also be extended to the study of domestic animals such as dogs and cats as potential carriers of the disease.

“It is imperative that we contribute to the control of leptospirosis through One Health perspective through preventive measures such as safe garbage disposal which would otherwise become breeding grounds for rats, vaccination of cats and dogs, use of preventive footwear in agrarian and other outdoor pursuits. While a patient infected with the disease may be treated, unless we adopt a holistic approach towards prevention, the environment around us could still be a catalyst of the disease hindering the control or even elimination of the disease.”

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Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?



By Maduranga Kalugampitiya

The domain of the humanities and social sciences is under attack more than ever before. The relevance, as well as usefulness of the degrees earned in those fields, is being questioned left, right, and centre. The question of whether it is meaningful at all to be spending, if not wasting, the limited financial resources available in the coffers to produce graduates in those fields is raised constantly, at multiple levels. Attempts are being made to introduce a little bit of soft skills into the curricula in order to add ‘value’ to the degree programmes in the field. The assumption here is that either such degree programmes do not impart any skills or the skills that they impart are of no value. We often see this widely-shared profoundly negative attitude towards the humanities and the social sciences (more towards the former than towards the latter) being projected on the practitioners (students, teachers, and researchers) in those areas. At a top-level meeting, which was held one to two years ago, with the participation of policy-makers in higher education and academics and educationists representing the humanities and social sciences departments, at state universities, a key figure in the higher education establishment claimed that the students who come to the humanities and social sciences faculties were ‘late-developers’. What better (or should I say worse?) indication of the official attitude towards those of us in the humanities and the social sciences!

While acknowledging that many of the key factors that have resulted in downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day, I wish to ask if we, the practitioners in the said fields, have done our part to counter the attack.

What the humanities and the social sciences engage with is essentially and self-consciously social. What these disciplines have to say has a direct bearing on the social dimension of human existence. It is near impossible to discuss phenomena in economics, political science, or sociology without having to reflect upon and use examples from what happens in our lives and around us. One cannot even begin to talk about teaching English as a second language without taking a look at her/his own experience learning English and the struggles that many people go through at different levels doing the same. One cannot talk about successful ways of teaching foreign languages without recognizing the need to incorporate an engagement with the cultural life of those languages at some level. No reading of an artwork—be it a novel, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, a poem, whatever—is possible without the reader at least subconsciously reflecting upon the broader context in which those artworks are set and also relating her own context or experience to what is being read. A legal scholar cannot read a legislation without paying attention to the social implications of the legislation and the dynamics of the community at whom that legislation is directed. The point is our own existence as social beings is right in the middle of what we engage with in such disciplines. To steal (and do so self-consciously) a term from the hard/natural sciences, society is essentially the ‘laboratory’ in which those in the humanities and social sciences conduct their work. There may be some areas of study within the humanities and social sciences which do not require an explicit engagement with our social existence, but I would say that such areas, if any, are limited in number.

Needless to say that every social intervention is political in nature. It involves unsettling what appears to be normal about our social existence in some way. One cannot make interventions that have a lasting impact without muddying the water which we have been made to believe is clear. How much of muddying do we as practitioners in the field of humanities and social sciences do is a question that needs to be asked.

Unfortunately, we do not see much work in the humanities and social sciences which unsettles the dominant order. What we often see is work that reinforces and reaffirms the dominant structures, systems, and lines of thought. Lack of rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory is clearly one of the factors which prevents some scholars in the field from being able to make interventions that are capable of muddying the water, but the fact that we sometimes do not see much muddying even on the part of the more adept scholars shows that lack of rigorous training is not the sole reason.

Muddying the water is no simple matter. To use a problematic, yet in my view useful, analogy, a scholar in the said field trying to make an intervention that results in unsettling the order is like a hydrogen atom in H2O, ‘water’ in layperson’s language, trying to make an intervention which results in a re-evaluation of the oxygen atom. Such an intervention invariably entails a re-evaluation of the hydrogen atom as well, for the reason that the two atoms are part of an organic whole. One cannot be purely objective in its reading of the other. Such an intervention is bound to be as unsettling for the hydrogen atom as it is for the oxygen atom. Similarly, in a majority of contexts, a scholar in the area of the humanities and social sciences cannot make an intervention, the kind that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, without unsettling the dominant structures and value systems, which they themselves are part of, live by, and also benefit from. For instance, the norms, values, and practices which define the idea of marriage in contexts like ours are things that a male scholar would have to deal with as a member of our society, and any intervention on his part which raises questions about gender-based inequalities embodied in such norms, values, and practices would be to question his own privilege. Needless to say that such an intervention could result in an existential crisis for the scholar, at least temporarily. Such interventions also entail the possibility of backlash from society. One needs thorough training to withstand that pressure.

In place of interventions that unsettle the existing order, what we often see is work, which re-presents commonsensical knowledge garbed in jargon. To give an example from an area that I am a bit familiar with, much of the work that takes place in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) identifies lack of motivation on the part of the students and also teachers and also lack of proper training for teachers as the primary reasons for the plight of English education in the country. This reading is not very different from a layperson’s understanding of the problem, and what we often see as research findings in the field of ESL is the same understanding, albeit dressed up in technical-sounding language. Such readings do not unsettle the existing order. They put the blame on the powerless. Very limited is the work that sees the present plight of English education as a systemic or structural problem. Reading that plight as a systemic problem requires us to re-evaluate the fundamental structures which govern our society, and such re-evaluation is unsettling is many ways. I argue that that is what is expected of scholarship in the ESL field, but unfortunately that is not what we see as coming out of the field.

If what gets produced as knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is jargonized commonsense, then the claim that such fields have nothing important to say is valid. If what a scholar in those fields has to say is not different to a layperson’s understanding of a given reality, the question whether there is any point in producing such scholars becomes valid.

In my view, the humanities and social sciences are in need of fundamental restructuring. This restructuring is not the kind which calls for the incorporation of a bit of soft skills here and a bit of soft skills there so that those who come out of those fields easily fit into predefined slots in society but the kind that results in the enhancement of the critical thinking capacity of the scholars. It is the kind of restructuring that would produce scholars who are capable of engaging in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence, in other words, scholars who are capable of muddying the water.

(Maduranga Kalugampitiya is attached to Department of English, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall thatparodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Selective targeting not law’s purpose



By Jehan Perera

The re-emergence of Donald Trump in the United States is a reminder that change is not permanent. Former President Trump is currently utilising the grievances of the white population in the United States with regard to the economic difficulties that many of them face to make the case that they need to be united to maintain their position in society. He is coming forward as their champion. The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasise the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms.

Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilised the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions. For a short while last year during the Aragalaya, it seemed that Sri Lanka was transcending its ethnic and religious cleavages in the face of the unexpected economic calamity that plunged large sections of the population back into poverty. There was unprecedented unity especially at the street level to demonstrate publicly that the government that had brought the country to this sorry pass had to go. The mighty force of people’s power succeeded in driving the leaders of that government out of power. Hopefully, there will be a government in the future that will bring the unity and mutual respect within the people, especially the younger generations, to the fore and the sooner the better as the price is growing higher by the day.

But like the irrepressible Donald Trump the old order is fighting to stage its comeback. The rhetoric of ethnicity and religion being in danger is surfacing once more. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who proclaimed late last year that the 13th Amendment to the constitution would be implemented in full, as it was meant to be, and enable the devolution of power to be enjoyed by the people of the provinces, including those dominated by Tamils and Muslims, has gone silent on this promise. The old order to which he is providing a new economic vision is clearly recalcitrant on ethno-religious matters. As a result, the government’s bold plan to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as promised to the international community in 2015 to address the unresolved human rights issues of the war, is reportedly on the rocks. The main Tamil political parties have made statements that they will not legitimise or accept such a mechanism in the absence of a genuine devolution of power. Politics must not override policies.


The sense of threat to ethnicity and religion looms too large once again for forward movement in conflict resolution between the different communities that constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is diverse and plural. Two unlikely persons now find themselves at the centre of an emotion-heavy ethno-religious storm. One is a comedian, the other is a religious preacher. Both of them have offended the religious sensibilities of many in the ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Both of their statements were originally made to small audiences of their own persuasion, but were then projected through social media to reach much larger audiences. The question is whether they made these statements to rouse religious hatred and violence. There have been numerous statements from all sides of the divide, whether ethnic, religious or political, denouncing them for their utterances.

Both comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and pastor Jerome Fernando have apologised for offending and hurting the religious sentiments of the Buddhist population. They made an attempt to remedy the situation when they realised the hurt, the anger and the opposition they had generated. This is not the first time that such hurtful and offensive comments have been made by members of one ethno-religious community against members of another ethnic-religious community. Taking advantage of this fact the government is arguing the case for the control of social media and also the mainstream media. It is preparing to bring forward legislation for a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission that would also pave the way to imprison journalists for their reporting, impose fines, and also revoke the licences issued to electronic media institutions if they impact negatively on national security, national economy, and public order or create any conflict among races and religions.

In a free society, opportunities are provided for people to be able to air their thoughts and dissents openly, be it at Hyde Park or through their representatives in Parliament. The threat to freedom of speech and to the media that can arise from this new law can be seen in the way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights has been used and is being abused in Sri Lanka. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. It is very likely that the Broadcast Regulatory Commission bill will yield a similar result if passed into law. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become yet another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Pastor Jerome Fernando is out of prison as he is currently abroad having left the country a short while before a travel ban was delivered to him.


The state media reported that a “Police officer said that since there is information that she was a person who was in the Aragalaya protest, they are looking into the matter with special attention.” This gives rise to the inference that the reason for her arrest was politically motivated. Comedian Edirisooriya was accused of having violated the provisions in the ICCPR in Section 3(1) that forbids hate speech. Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act prohibits advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. The international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has pointed out that in the case of Edirisooriya that for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International also notes that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”

Ironically, in the past there have been many instances of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted in a hateful manner that even led to riots against them, but successive governments have been inactive in protecting them or arresting their persecutors. Such targeting has taken place, often for political purposes in the context of elections, in blatant bids to mobilise sections of the population through appeals to narrow nationalism and fear of the other. The country’s political and governmental leaders need to desist from utilising the ICCPR Act against those who make social and political critiques that are outside the domain of hate speech. The arrest of Bruno Divakara, the owner of SL-Vlogs, under the ICCPR Act is an indication of this larger and more concerning phenomenon which is being brought to the fore by the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission bill.

The crackdown on the space for free expression and critical comment is unacceptable in a democratic polity, especially one as troubled as Sri Lanka, in which the economy has collapsed and caused much suffering to the people and the call to hold elections has been growing. The intervention of the Human Rights Commission which has called on the Inspector General of Police to submit a report on the arrest and its rationale is a hopeful sign that the independence of institutions intended to provide a check and balance will finally prevail. The Sri Lankan state will hopefully evolve to be a neutral arbiter in the disputes between competing ethnic, religious and partisan political visions of what the state should be and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within it. Taking on undemocratic powers in a variety of ways and within a short space of time is unlikely to deliver economic resurgence and a stable and democratic governance the country longs for. Without freedom, justice and fair play within, there can be no hope of economic development that President Wickremesinghe would be wanting to see.

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Girl power… to light up our scene



Manthra: Pop, rock and Sinhala songs

We have never had any outstanding all-girl bands, in the local scene, except, perhaps…yes The Planets, and that was decades ago!

The Planets did make a name for themselves, and they did create quite a lot of excitement, when they went into action.

Of course, abroad, we had several top all-girl bands – outfits like the Spice Girls, Bangles, Destiny’s Child, and The Supremes.

It’s happening even now, in the K-pop scene.

Let’s hope we would have something to shout about…with the band Manthra – an all-girl outfit that came together last year (2022).

Manthra is made up of Hiruni Fernando (leader/bass guitar), Gayathma Liyanage (lead guitar), Amaya Jayarathne (drums), Imeshini Piyumika (keyboards), and Arundathi Hewawitharana (vocals).

Amaya Arundathi and Imeshini are studying at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, while Gayathma is studying Architecture at NIMB, and Hiruni is the Western Music teacher at St. Lawrence’s Convent, and the pianist at Galadari Hotel, having studied piano and classical guitar at West London University.

They have already displayed their talents at various venues, events, weddings, and on TV, as well (Vanithabimana Sirasa TV and Charna TV Art Beat).

Additionally, the band showcased their talent at the talent show held at the Esoft Metro Campus.

The plus factor, where this all-girl outfit is concerned, is that their repertoire is made up rock, pop, and Sinhala songs.

Explaining as to how they came up with the name Manthra, founder member Hiruni said that Manthra means a word, or sound, repeated to aid concentration in meditation, and that the name was suggested by one of the band members.

Hiruni Fernando: Founder and leader of Manthra

She also went on to say that putting together a female band is not an easy task, in the scene here.

“We faced many difficulties in finding members. Some joined and then left, after a short while. Unlike a male band, where there are many male musicians in Sri Lanka, there are only a few female musicians. And then, there are some parents who don’t like their daughters getting involved in music.”

With talented musicians in their line-up, the future certainly looks bright for Manthra who are now keen to project themselves, in an awesome way, in the scene here, and abroad, as well.

“We are keen to do stage shows and we are also planning to create our own songs,” said Hiruni.

Yes, we need an all-girl group to add variety to our scene that is now turning out to be a kind of ‘repeating groove,’ where we see, and hear, almost the same thing…over and over again!

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