1 dead, 2 in serious condition
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Following the outbreak in the Bronx of a rare but deadly disease spread by rat urine and associated with squalor, New York City’s Health Department has issued guidelines on how to avoid catching the avoid the illness, known as leptospirosis.
Leptospirosis can lead to kidney and liver damage and possibly death. It is treatable with antibiotics, however.
The disease is most common in tropical areas of the world and in slums of the developing world, but outbreaks can occur anywhere, according to health experts. While other animals can catch it, leptospirosis is most frequently spread by rodents.
The outbreak, in one square block of the Bronx, killed one person and left two others seriously ill.
All three of the victims resided at or near 750 Grand Concourse, where people were living illegally in eight rat-infested basement apartments. The building’s landlord was listed by Public Advocate Letitia James as one of the city’s worst landlords.
According to Buildings Department records, the building has been a slum for years, with complaints about rooms being illegally converted into apartments, a sinkhole in the laundry room and other problems. According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), there are 79 open violations at the building and one information order. The Buildings Department reports there are 25 open construction code violations dating back to 2004.
One mother told the New York Times that last month, “the family came home to find the refrigerator door ajar and rats crawling everywhere.” A family member spent two weeks deathly ill in intensive care, and the family has since been relocated.
All eight illegal basement units were vacated by the city on Tuesday, and the tenants were offered relocation assistance from the Red Cross, according to the city.
Leptospirosis bacteria from rat urine enter the body through the eyes, nose or mouth, or through wounds and cuts in the skin, according to the Health Department. Some people who are infected may have no symptoms, while others may have a mild illness with fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting or diarrhea. Rarely, the illness becomes life-threatening.
Health Department precautions
The Health Department has issued the following precautions on avoiding Leptospirosis:
- Avoid contact with rats or with places where rats may have urinated.
- Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after any contact with areas where rats may live.
- If you cannot avoid areas where rats have been seen, or are cleaning areas where rats have been, use a solution of one part household bleach and 10 parts water to kill the leptospirosis bacteria.
- Protect yourself from contact with their urine: wear rubber gloves (especially if you have any cuts or sores on your hands or arms), boots, masks and some type of eyewear.
- Always wear shoes whenever taking trash to your trash compactor room.
- If members of the public believe they have been in contact with rats and are experiencing any of the aforementioned conditions, they should immediately contact their health care providers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, dog owners should also get their pets vaccinated against leptospirosis. The vaccine does not provide 100 percent protection, however.
It’s a ‘cluster’
The city says that there are typically one to three cases of leptospirosis per year in New York City, and one death since 2006. The outbreak in the Concourse area is the first cluster, however. A cluster is defined as cases occurring in same area and in a short period of time.
The block is home to four schools – two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. All four schools have passed exterior pest control inspections and the Department of Education (DOE) has found no rodent signs in the school, according to the city.
In December 2016, the Health Department issued multiple violations for rat ‘harborage’ conditions at 750 Grand Concourse and ordered the building’s landlord to immediately remediate the basement and affected apartments. On Monday, Feb. 13, the Health Department confirmed the third case of leptospirosis there and started baiting the basement of the building.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. said the city has not done enough about rats.
“One of the most frequent complaints I hear from people all over the city is about the prevalence of rats and rodents in their neighborhoods, in the subway, in public spaces and elsewhere. For far too long, the city has not done enough to stop the spread of rodents in the five boroughs,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.
The building is in the city’s “Pest Control Reservoir Area,” he added, calling the program ineffective.
The city says it will distribute masks to tenants of the building, to be worn when entering the basement, and hold regular inspections of the building and the surrounding area.