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Study Examines Disease Potential of NYC’s Rats

In the past few years, we have learnt that the well being of human beings is intimately linked to the health of animals. The current Ebola epidemic probably got its start when someone came in contact with an infected animal; maybe a monkey or fruit bat. The virus causing Middle East respiratory syndrome appears to spread from camels to humans. Perhaps this is why the findings of a team of pathogen hunters from Columbia University raised alarm bells, reports the New York Times.

The scientists conducted a survey of the viruses and bacteria in 133 of Manhattan’s rats. They took samples of blood, urine, feces and tissues from a number of organs and first began by looking for disease agents previous found in rats. They discovered bacteria that caused food poisoning, such as Salmonella and a strain of E. coli known to cause terrible diarrhea. They also found pathogens that caused fevers, such as Seoul hantavirus and Leptospira.

Then they searched the rats for new species of viruses and so far have identified 18 unknown species related to viruses already shown to cause diseases in humans. Two of the new species, were similar to the virus that causes hepatitis C – even though rats will not give us hepatitis C.

“This is a recipe for a public health nightmare,” said Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a scientific organization that researches the links between human health and wildlife. This is particularly concerning given the close quarters that are shared by rats and New Yorkers. The study, however, will not lead to any immediate changes in how the city deals with rats, but its groundbreaking data that would help health officials better understand how diseases are spread.