NYC deals with latest bacterial infection linked to rats

February 16, 2017

To many, rats are an occasional nuisance that we hope we don’t have to deal with often. For others, however, they are a constant occurrence responsible for doing serious damage and wreaking havoc on large neighborhoods, transportation systems and entire cities.

Along with being unpleasant to look at, rats are also known to carry various diseases and be a real threat to humans and other animals who come in contact with them. This was demonstrated recently in the Bronx Area of New York City, where a rare bacterial infection, spread by contact with rat urine, has killed one person and sickened two others.

Known by several names including mud fever, sewerman’s flu, or swamp fever, the illness caused by the bacterium Leptospira. As the names indicates, the disease is associated with filth, and in the developed world, is exceedingly rare. But in the Grand Concourse neighborhood of the Bronx, where the conditions in some of the buildings have long been called unlivable by residents, the disease found its way into the vast rat population.

This is the first cluster ever identified in New York City and the Health Department says it is taking immediate measures to reduce the rat population in the area. It says it is also trying to educate people who live in the area about precautions, signs, and treatment.

“I want to make clear that this is a very rare infection,” Dr. Mary Bassett, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said in an article, calling the flare-up of leptospirosis cases a “cluster,” rather than an outbreak or an epidemic.

“Since 2006, we’ve seen some 26 cases in New York City. The last data we have for the country as a whole suggests in 2015 there were fewer than 30 cases diagnosed across the whole country.”

The disease is caused by exposure to an infected animal’s urine, Dr. Bassett explained, not through bites or by touch or by watching a rat scurry across subway tracks. She urged anyone in the area with flu-like symptoms to seek medical help. The disease can be treated with antibiotics.

However, health officials still warn to avoid contact with rats or with places where rats may have urinated. They also recommend washing hands thoroughly with soap and water after any contact with areas where rats may live.

City health inspectors issued multiple violations for “harborage” conditions in the area, both for the exterior and interior of the building, and ordered the building’s landlord to immediately remediate the basement and affected apartments. Crews have also started to bait the basement of the building.

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