UK police investigate claim Wimbledon player was poisoned

FILE - This is a July 2016 file photo of of rising British tennis star Gabriella Taylor in action at Wimbledon London. British police are investigating allegations that Taylor a player at the Wimbledon tennis tournament was poisoned, after she fell ill with a bacterial infection that can be spread through rat urine. Gabriella Taylor was playing in the junior tournament when she became sick . (John Walton/PA, File via AP)

LONDON — Detectives are investigating allegations that a British player at the Wimbledon tennis tournament was poisoned, after she fell ill with a bacterial infection that can be spread through rat urine, London's Metropolitan Police said Thursday.

Gabriella Taylor was playing in Wimbledon's junior tournament when she became sick on July 6 and had to drop out. Her family says she was hospitalized in intensive care and diagnosed with leptospirosis, a bacterial infection spread by animals.

Several scientists expressed doubt that 18-year-old Taylor could have been infected deliberately. But her mother, Milena Taylor, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that "the bacteria the infection team found is so rare in Britain that we feel this could not have been an accident." Gabrielle "was staying in a completely healthy environment" during the tournament and wouldn't likely have been accidentally exposed to the bacteria, she said.

London's Metropolitan Police said detectives are investigating "an allegation of poisoning with intent to endanger life" or cause bodily harm. It said the incident was "alleged to have taken place at an address in Wimbledon" between July 1 and July 10.

The force said no one had been arrested and police are awaiting medical information about what, if any, poison was involved.

Health officials say leptospirosis is uncommon in the U.K. There were 71 confirmed cases in England and Wales in 2015, according to Public Health England. The infection can be acquired by touching soil or water contaminated with the urine of infected animals, including cattle, pigs, dogs and particularly rats.

It usually causes mild flu-like symptoms, but in some cases can lead to organ failure and internal bleeding.

Despite Taylor's diagnosis, scientists on Thursday said they doubted she was infected deliberately with the bug that sickened her.

Kimon-Andreas Karatzas, an assistant professor of food microbiology at the University of Reading, said the rare bacterium wasn't an obvious candidate as a poison.

"There are other bacteria that are much easier to find," such as salmonella, often found in raw chicken.

"Trying to find leptospirosis, it's a much more difficult task," Karatzas said.

Leptospirosis also has a long incubation period, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the source of an infection, he said. It takes between five and 14 days, and in rare cases up to a month, before symptoms appear.

David Mabey, professor of communicable diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said leptospirosis "is not a bug you can grow in the lab" and is most often contracted by swimming in contaminated water.

"If you were wanting to poison someone, this would be an extremely roundabout way of going about it," Mabey said. "You'd have to catch a rat, make sure it was infected and get it to pee in her bathwater or something."

Taylor, who is ranked 381st in the world, tweeted on July 11 that she was in intensive care at Southampton General Hospital in southern England.

On Wednesday, she tweeted a picture of herself on a tennis court with the caption: "So happy to be back on court!! Taking it step by step!"

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