NYC grapples with record-breaking surge in rat pee infections

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Record surge in leptospirosis cases strikes New York City amid rat population struggles.

NEW YORK, April 18: New York City faces a concerning surge in cases of leptospirosis, a life-threatening bacterial infection primarily transmitted through rat urine, as reported by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The infection, which can lead to severe complications if untreated, has afflicted a record number of individuals in recent years, with the current trajectory indicating another all-time high for this year.

Leptospirosis manifests with a range of symptoms, including fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting, diarrhea, and cough. If left untreated, it can progress to cause kidney failure, liver damage, jaundice, hemorrhage, bloody eyes, respiratory distress, and potentially death.

The bacterium responsible, Leptospira, thrives in rat populations, with rats shedding the bacteria in their urine. Human transmission occurs through direct contact with open wounds or mucous membranes.

Despite ongoing efforts to combat the city’s rat population, estimated to be as high as 3 million, New York City continues to grapple with leptospirosis outbreaks. Mayor Eric Adams has prioritized rat control initiatives, with the latest proposal involving the administration of birth control to rats in the form of salty pellets.

While leptospirosis was previously a minor concern, its prevalence has surged in recent years. Between 2001 and 2020, the city averaged just three cases annually, but in 2023, a staggering 24 cases were recorded — the highest on record for a single year. The trend continues to escalate, with six cases reported as of April 10 this year.

The bacteria’s resilience in warm, moist conditions exacerbates the challenge, with the highest number of cases occurring during months with excessive rain and unseasonably warm temperatures. Climate change, characterized by erratic weather patterns, likely contributes to the uptick in cases.

In response to the escalating threat, the city’s health department has issued a health advisory urging clinicians to remain vigilant for leptospirosis cases. Treatment typically involves oral antibiotics for mild cases and intravenous doses for severe cases, with symptoms typically appearing within 5 to 14 days post-exposure.

Of the 98 locally acquired cases recorded between 2001 and 2023, the majority occurred in men, predominantly in the Bronx. Cases are often associated with environments contaminated by rat urine or materials frequently exposed to rat urine, such as trash bags or food waste bins.

While New York City grapples with leptospirosis outbreaks, the issue is not unique to the city, with similar cases reported globally. Last year, doctors in the Netherlands documented a case involving a young individual who contracted the infection after exposure to contaminated canal water likely tainted by rodent urine.

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