Health and Wellness

New York City issues health alert over rise of rat-borne disease that has killed six people

New York City has issued a health alert over the rise of rat-borne disease. 

Cases of leptospirosis among people soared to its highest level in 2023, which is spread through contact with rat urine or feces.

In 2023 there were 24 cases reported in the city, which is eight times higher than total cases in the previous two decades.

So far in 2024, there have been six cases. 

‘Not only are rodents unsightly and can traumatize your day, but they’re a real health-related crises,’ said Mayor Eric Adams.

Rat-related illness soared to its highest level in 2023, with 24 cases reported in the city

Between 2001 and 2020, New York City was seeing just three cases of human leptospirosis a year. That jumped eightfold in 2023. So far in 2024, there have been six cases

Between 2001 and 2020, New York City was seeing just three cases of human leptospirosis a year. That jumped eightfold in 2023. So far in 2024, there have been six cases

When animals such as rats are infected with leptospirosis, they may have no symptoms of the disease. 

But they may continue to excrete the bacteria into the environment continuously or every once in a while for a few months up to several years.

Humans can become infected through contact with urine from infected animals.

The health alert, sent from the Deputy Commissioner, Division of Disease Control to colleagues, said: ‘Twenty-four people diagnosed with leptospirosis were reported in 2023. This exceeds the total number of cases… in any prior year. 

‘For comparison, the average number of locally acquired cases during 2021 to 2023 was 15 per year, and three cases per year during 2001 to 2020. This year, six cases have been reported as of April 10, 2024.’

Among the 98 locally acquired cases reported from 2001 and 2023, the median patient age was 50 years. Some 94 percent of the cases were male and most came from the Bronx. 

Leptospirosis infections are not common in the US, with only about 100 to 150 diagnosed every year — of which up to 15 percent are fatal.

Six people died from leptospirosis between 2001 and 2023 in New York City, according to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

New Yorkers are told to be on the lookout for symptoms such as high fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting, jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), red eyes. Abdominal pain, diarrhea and a rash can also occur.

Officials are anxious because the infection often comes from handling trash bags or bins with food waste in, which a rat or other infected animal might have urinated on.

If not treated, leptospirosis can lead to kidney failure, meningitis, liver damage and respiratory distress.

Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom said: ‘In terms of awareness, I understand, if we wear gloves – supers, or people who tend to deal with large amounts of plastic bags.’

Mayor Adams is attempting to get garbage bags off the street and containerize the trash. 

Mayor Adams said: ‘If you were to open your closet and a rat ran out you would never open that closet again the same way. If you went to a restroom and a rat crawled up to your toilet, you would never feel comfortable in that restroom again.’

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