Rat-urine-borne leptospirosis jumps in NYC as people get sick

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NEW YORK — A year after New York City anointed a czar for its war on rats, health officials are seeing an uptick in cases of a rare disease linked to rat urine.

Sanitation workers, who collect the city's trash and are often exposed to rats, say workers are disproportionately represented in cases of leptospirosis caused by exposure to rat urine.

Harry Nespoli said that a union shopkeeper suffered severe symptoms of the disease and read her obituary before she recovered. Union of Uniformed Cleaners, which represents the sector of cleaners. When the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene released a Warning of upward trend in cases Last week, another worker was hospitalized with symptoms, he said.

“The streets look clean, but the rats are still running around,” Nespoli told USA Today. “See, they were here before us.”

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In 2023, New York City had 24 cases of the disease, the highest number in any single year, Dr. Celia Quinn, New York City's deputy health commissioner for disease control, wrote in an April 12 advisory from the health department. As of April 10 this year, there have already been six cases.

Between 2001 and 2023, there were 98 cases in New York — a quarter of which occurred in 2023 alone, according to health department statistics. Some had severe kidney and liver failure and some had severe respiratory problems. Six died in two decades.

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Almost all cases involved men and the average age of infection was 50. The Bronx had 37 cases, followed by 28 in Manhattan, 19 in Brooklyn, 10 in Queens and four in Staten Island.

In April 2023, Mayor Eric Adams appointed the city's first “Rat Czar,” whose job it is to reduce vermin populations and promote cleaner streets and new approaches to trash collection. The City Council also considered ordinances that would reduce the rat population using a birth control program.

According to the cleaning workers union Nespoli, in 2024, six cleaning workers contracted the disease. Five of the previous year's 24 cases occurred among sanitation workers, he added.

Exposure to the disease is an occupational hazard for garbage collection workers, Nespoli said. This can happen when workers' gloves get wet, making them soft and easier for rat urine to penetrate, he said. Workers are advised to change their gloves frequently.

None of the cleaners died from the disease, Nespoli added. But the prospect of such a situation prompted a state A bill supported by the union It provides benefits to employees and their families in case of disability or death due to illness.

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In an email, Vincent Gragnani, a spokesman for the city health department, said the department frequently communicates with workers about how to prevent leptospirosis. Workers are encouraged to wear gloves to prevent contact with rat urine, among other hazards. He said the department is reminding workers to avoid touching their faces with work gloves.

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He said because the city moves more trash in containers, cleaners don't come into direct contact with trash and garbage bags. In the past year, binning has reduced 311, including 6.3% citywide and 14.3% in rat reduction zones, he added. By fall, 70% of the city's total trash will be placed in containers, which city officials hope will further reduce the rat population.

The health department said in an email that it worked with the health department's medical division to educate city employees about occupational hazards and safety protocols, including personal protective equipment. The department held a virtual event on Wednesday to inform workers about leptospirosis and other health risks.

“We will continue to take steps to ensure city employees are aware of best practices,” the email said.

In its advisory last week, the health department said leptospirosis is spread by bacteria in the urine of infected animals. It is spread through direct contact with contaminated water, soil or food, which enters the body through open wounds or mucous membranes. Specific bacteria in New York City are associated with the Norway rat The large brown species is historically present Runs through the city's garbage, streets, tunnels, cellars and sewers. Human transmission is rare. Health officials said people often get sick from contact with places where infected rats have urinated, especially when handling garbage bags or bins.

Symptoms of leptospirosis

The incubation period for the disease is usually five to 14 days, but it can become active after two days or take up to a month to appear. Symptoms for people vary widely, but include fever, headache, diarrhea, jaundice, and rash. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But without treatment, the disease can lead to kidney failure, meningitis, liver damage and respiratory problems.

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In their advisory, city health officials said Leptospira bacteria usually die in freezing temperatures or dry heat. However, increased rainfall and unseasonably warm temperatures associated with climate change are expanding its survival potential, which may help explain how the bacteria thrived in New York City. Officials cited warmer and wetter weather in June and October 2023, compared to previous years, for 10 of the year's 24 cases.

Health officials asked local providers to report cases as quickly as possible.

The push to control rat populations received renewed attention earlier this year following the death of “Flaco,” the famous New York City owl who escaped from the Central Park Zoo. In February, Flacco died after crashing into a Manhattan building. Veterinary pathologists at the Bronx Zoo He was found to have high levels of rat poison in his system that would impair his ability to fly.

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