CPI+CNN Investigation: Records suggest Puerto Rico saw a leptospirosis outbreak after Hurricane Maria — but officials won’t call it that
Puerto Rico’s own records list so many cases of the bacterial disease leptospirosis that officials should have declared an “epidemic” or an “outbreak” after Hurricane Maria instead of denying that one occurred, according to seven medical experts who reviewed previously unreleased data for CNN and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI). A Puerto Rico mortality database — which CNN and CPI sued the island’s Demographic Registry to obtain — lists 26 deaths in the six months after Hurricane Maria that were labeled by clinicians as “caused” by leptospirosis, a bacterial illness known to spread through water and soil, especially in the aftermath of storms. That’s more than twice the number of deaths as were listed in Puerto Rico the previous year, according to an analysis of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) records. “Twenty-six deaths attributed to leptospirosis — that’s extraordinary,” said Dr. Joseph Vinetz, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego and an expert on the disease, who reviewed the data. “There’s no other way of putting it … The numbers are huge.”
Puerto Rico’s Health Department attributed only four leptospirosis deaths to Hurricane Maria until June 22 — when it added two more after CNN and CPI asked about the 26 deaths. Officials maintained that the timing was related to laboratory tests and not questions from reporters.