Inside: Rats have been known to harbor diseases dangerous to humans for a long time. Scientists have finally completed an eye opening study of rats in New York.
Local Customs and the Spread of Disease
Rats in New York! Click To Tweet No one wants to imagine them living in their basement, backyard or rooting through their trash cans. We think they’re disgusting, flea carrying, disease-spreading machines. Yuch!
Disease has been at the forefront of people’s minds. I’ve heard a lot about Ebola virus in the news lately and rightly so. The devastation in West Africa is horrifying. High death-rates there, however, are due to local burial customs including customs surrounding burial and superstitions about the origin of illness.
Bad Sanitation, Superstition, Cats and Rats
Plagues have decimated world populations for millenia and North American populations have also faced many epidemics over the last few hundred years. Small pox ravaged east coast populations in the early 1600’s and again in the late 1600’s. Yellow fever killed thousands in Philadelphia in the 1700’s. The rapid spread of these germs was also due to customs prevalent during the times in question.
Proper sanitation practices were unheard of in most settlements until the last 100 years. Bed pans were emptied out windows of homes. Water supplies were quickly contaminated by these methods of waste disposal. Thatched roofs housed vermin including rats which carry a number of germs including the plague. Superstitions about black cats meant mass killing of felines. Fewer cats meant more disease. Click To Tweet
Rats in New York and the Health of the Nation
Our well-being is linked to the health of all organisms around us. We don’t live in isolation. The web of life outlines our close interaction with life around us and that includes disease organisms.
A group of scientists has completed a breakthrough study looking at how a particular animal that lives near humans interacts with a number of disease-causing organisms. Their study, focusing on rats in New York, has provided some very interesting results which should make us all a little more vigilant where pest control is concerned as rats and humans will always live in close proximity. Pathogen hunters at Columbia University examined 133 Manhattan rats. These Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) are found worldwide anywhere people are found.
“The rat is the mous-tache in the trache. The wrong-doer in the soer.” ― J. Patrick Lewis
Taking samples of blood, urine, feces and tissue samples from all organs, they extracted the DNA and looked for disease agents in the fragments of genes. The group used two methods to examine available DNA:
- targeted molecular assays which test for the presence of a particular molecule;
- unbiased sequencing which determines the precise order of nucleotides in the DNA molecule; in other words, the detailed genetic alphabet of the DNA found
Pathogens found in New York Rats
Dr. Lipkin and his colleagues published their first findings in the journal mBio earlier this month. Some nasty pathogens were found in the genetic material recovered:
- a strain of E.coli causing terrible diarrhea
- Clostridium difficile also causing gastroenteritis
- Bartonella spp.
- Streptobacillus moniliformis both of which cause fever among other symptoms
- Seoul hantavirus which causes Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, a severe, sometimes fatal respiratory disease
- 18 previously unknown viral species, which seem to be related to disease-causing viruses affecting humans, were also found
“You want proof evolution is for real, don’t waste your time with fossils; just check out the New York City rat. They started out as immigrants, stowaways in some ship’s cargo hold. Only the survivors got to breed, and they’ve been improving with every new litter. Smarter, faster, stronger. Getting ready to rule. Manhattan wouldn’t be the ﬁrst island they took over.”― Andrew Vachss, Another Life
Bonus, they did not find Yersina pestis or as it is better known, bubonic plague. New York, thank goodness, is spared that deadly virus which decimated almost 50% of the human population in the middle ages.
The data from this study will help health officials better understand the spread of zoonotic (illness passed between animals and humans) disease. Rats in New York have been known to not only leave dangerous urine and droppings but also to bite awake and sleeping people. Therefore, this ground breaking research gives more awareness to the need to clean up our urban centres. This study is vital in giving us a better understanding of the true ecology of bacteria, viruses and enabling us to control the spread of disease better.
Correal, Annie. New York Today: What’s in a Rat? October 14, 2014. City Room:Blogging from the Five Boroughs, October 14, 2014.
Coscarelli Joe. NYC Rats Are Even More Disgusting Than We Thought. 10:14 a.m. October 14, 2014. Daily Intelligencer. October 14, 2014
Firth C, Bhat M, Firth MA, Williams SH, Frye MJ, Simmonds P, Conte JM, Ng J, Garcia J, Bhuva NP, Lee B, Che X, Quan P-L, Lipkin WI. 2014. Detection of zoonotic pathogens and characterization of novel viruses carried by commensal Rattus norvegicus in New York City. mBio 5(5):e01933-14. doi:10.1128/mBio.01933-14. Received 11 September 2014 Accepted 15 September 2014 Published 14 October 2014
Zimmer, Carl. Rats and their Alarming Bugs. October 14, 2014, New York Times. October 14 2014.