Rat Resurrection: Diseases once thought long gone are crawling around the city


You see them just about everywhere you go in New Orleans, from Lee Circle to the French Quarter. They're some of the city's most despised residents. But, new research shows you shouldn't just be grossed out when you see them. 

"I don't want to scare anybody, but it's something that I always say: Be cautious about and take precautions to be sure that you're potentially not at risk," said Michael Blum with the New Orleans Rat Project. 

Blum heads up the project for Tulane University. For the last three years, he and his team have trapped rodents across the city. What they've found has raised serious concerns about public health risks in the metro area - the potential spread of deadly diseases. 

"So surprisingly, things which historically were known to be present in the city and then over time have thought to have been eradicated or at least reduced. So for example, we see a highly diverse assemblage of bartonella which is a bacterial pathogen of concern. We also see Leptospira, which is something which if it goes untreated, again, a bacterial pathogen of concern, it would be fatal. We see remarkably things that we associate in far-flung areas like Hanta virus that are endemic to the city," said Blum. 

Recovery decisions as big as whether enough resources were made available to help people rebuild after Hurricane Katrina or as small as neighbors mowing the abandon lot next door all come into play. You see, researchers have found a correlation between vacant properties, the rats that live there and dangerous rodent-borne pathogens. 

"What we're finding is that those individual decisions and those public policies have translated to really dramatic differences in infectious disease risk across the city," said Blum. 

But, researchers don't know if the disease prevalence in New Orleans rodents is worse than it was prior to Katrina. 

"One of the outcomes of the storm, this is an unfortunate set of circumstances, is the records that we had about rodents in the city were effectively destroyed as a consequence of flooding, so what were trying to do is reconstruct what things looked like prior to the storm, and as you might imagine, it's very difficult to asses that," said Blum. 

Another important question is whether people are getting sick. Blum said doctors may overlook or misdiagnose these diseases. 

"So, if somebody comes in with Leptospirosis, for example, it very well may likely be registered as the flu or a fever or something, so it's going to be treated with a broad spectrum antibiotic and it goes away," said Blum. 

To give you an idea of just how dangerous Leptospirosis can be, according to the New York City Health Department, three people contracted the disease in the Bronx this month. Two recovered, but one person died. Now, health officials there are working to reduce the rat population and educate neighbors.   "Rodents in general, small mammals, will transmit Leptospira by way of excreting into waterways so Leptospira will be in waterways, canals, ditches whatnot, puddles even, and then by virtue of perhaps even just sticking your hand in contaminated water you can be infected by the bacteria." said Blum. 

That's why Tulane researchers are very careful when handling the rodents they are studying and testing. And Blum said if you have mice or rats in your home or business, you should be, too. Not just with the animal, but also if you notice droppings. 

"Well, some standard things like, so wearing face masks, so you're not going to inhale any particles, that's a standard precaution, wearing gloves is another precaution," said Blum. 

But, your best bet is to leave it to the experts. 

"They're nasty animals, they urinate all over everything, the droppings are everywhere, and that's how they transmit their diseases," said Jed Darensbourg with DA Exterminating. 

Darensbourg said since Katrina, he's seen an uptick in the city's rat population. 

"Uptown, you know, houses are close together, they're older homes, got a lot of oak trees, the two main rats in the city, in the area are going to be the Norway Rat and the Roof Rat," said Darensbourg. "You have restaurants, you've got food constantly going in and out, I'm finding that the newer restaurants that are opening up and renovated restaurants are kind of addressing issues with rat infestations inside the structure, keeping them from getting in, taking really good sanitary measures to keep it clean." 

Darensbourg adds that sanitation is very important when controlling rodents.

"Make sure you seal your trash cans when you put your trash in," said Darensbourg. 

He said there's also new technology to help fight infestations.

"There's motion sensor cameras that you set out, that when rats, you'll know what part of the building they're frequenting," said Darensbourg. 

As for the New Orleans Rat Project, it's important to note the study stops at the animal. Right now, researchers haven't extended their investigation into the human population to see whether or not those rodent-borne diseases are being transmitted to people in our community. But, Blum said based on their current findings, the level of infectious disease risk is much higher than what they expected. 

"It means folks should be very careful about rodents, don't make friends with them, it's something that you have to treat with respect, it's something that you should take very seriously," he said. 

The Rat Project will wrap up in about two years. Researchers will then work with the city to focus on solutions to manage and eliminate the infectious disease risk. And, you may soon get a knock on your door from these researchers. Starting this spring, they will go to thousands of homes across New Orleans to survey neighbors about their perceptions of rats and what they're doing about it. 

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