Ok, So Maybe It’s Time to Start Worrying About Rats

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There are some things that we have come to accept as facts of city life: the smell of semen trees in the spring (aka Callery pear trees), the way the winter wind coming off the water cuts right through your coat and into your very soul, the fact that the F train will never be doing anything but pulling out of the station whenever you need to catch it most. And then there’s rats. Rats are as much a part of the New York City landscape as tourists. And not dissimilarly to tourists, encountering rats in places like the subway is startling, yes, and frequently disturbing, but generally not cause for alarm because you know that when it comes right down to it, you’re going your way, and the rats are going theirs. Except, well, maybe it’s time to start feeling a little bit more alarmed about rats. Or, you know, a lot more alarmed.

It all kind of started earlier this week when Comptroller Scott Stringer warned that complaints about rats have gone way up this year,  but that “in many cases, health inspectors didn’t follow through on their own protocols to combat the growing problem.” Stringer filed a damning audit of the way the city’s Health Department has failed to “manag[e] its pest control program effectively, even as the number of complaints about pests grew.”

Troubling as it is that the city is slacking on such an important job, even more troubling is new research done on New York City rats which reveals that those germ-ridden rodents are carrying even more diseases than previously thought. The New York Times reports that after scientists from Columbia University “conducted a survey of the viruses and bacteria in Manhattan’s rats, the first attempt to use DNA to catalog pathogens in any animal species in New York City,” they found that city rats (who, it turns out, are “a lot wilier than rats in other cities”) are carrying around an alarmingly high number of pathogens.

In what the president of the EcoHealth Alliance calls “a recipe for a public health nightmare,” researchers discovered that city rats carry “plenty of pathogens. Some caused food-borne illnesses. Others, like Seoul hantavirus, had never before been found in New York. Others were altogether new to science.” Cool. 

This is, of course, particularly worrying at a time when the spread and containment of infectious diseases is of the utmost concern (scientists believe that this Ebola outbreak has its root in animal-to-human transmission), but what makes it all the more concerning is that the city is failing to follow the protocols that it had established for itself when it comes to dealing with rats. And if the Health Department can’t even follow through on its own rules and regulations when it comes to dealing with one of its most common scourges, how can we rely on it for the much bigger problems that we could eventually face? Pull it together, Health Department. We’re kind of counting on you.

 Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


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