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NYC’s rats are crawling with diseases: study

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NEW YORK (PIX11) — They skitter. They scamper. They could make you sick.

New York City’s rodent residents carry several pathogens that can cause serious illness in humans, according to a study from Columbia University released this week.

It’s the first study of its kind to identify the possible diseases carried by rats in the Big Apple and suss out which can be transmitted to humans, scientists with the university’s Mailman School of Public Health said.

Rats “are all over the city—uptown, downtown, underground. Everywhere they go, they collect microbes and amplify them. And because these animals live close to people, there is ample opportunity for exchange,” said Ian Lipkin, the study’s senior author.

Researchers spent a year trapping 133 Norway rats around the city, focusing specifically on rodents trapped in residential buildings.

What they found is enough to make even the most veteran New Yorkers cringe and, scientists say, points to the need for further research into a subject they know too little about.

“New Yorkers are constantly exposed to rats and the pathogens they carry, perhaps more than any other animal,” said Cadhla Firth, who conducted the study. “Despite this, we know very little about the impact they have on human health.”

City-dwelling rats carry pathogens that can cause diarrhea and vomiting in humans. The symptoms could range from mild to severe, especially if those rats are carrying E. coli, Clostridium difficile (also known as C. diff), or Salmonella.

Serious and sometimes fatal rat-bite fever, and Seoul hantavirus — which can cause hemorrhagic fever and seems to be a newly introduced pathogen — are also carried by our rodent brethren.

These bacteria are typically spread when rats leave behind saliva, urine or feces that humans or their pets come into contact with. But it’s unknown how many cases of human illness can be blamed on rats, scientists said.

The findings come days after the city’s comptroller derided the health department as “weak” when it comes to investigating and fixing residents’ rat woes.

From fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2013, pest complaints, including rat problems, jumped 10 percent in the city and health department workers failed 24 percent of the time to check out citizens’ pest complaints in the 10-day target period, the audit found.

In 160 cases, no field inspection was conducted, Comptroller Scott Stringer said.