New York City Rats Carrying the Bubonic Plague?

In this Dec. 12, 2005 file photo, a rat comes briefly out of its hole at a subway stop in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. / AP PHOTO/JULIE JACOBSON
In this Dec. 12, 2005 file photo, a rat comes briefly out of its hole at a subway stop in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. / AP PHOTO/JULIE JACOBSON

 

Rats in New York City carry fleas and other parasites capable of transmitting bubonic plague and other virulent diseases, a new study reports.

For the study, scientists from Columbia and Cornell Universities collected a sample of 133 rats from across the city and analyzed more than 6,500 specimens of fleas, lice and mites the rats were harboring.

The bugs they found included Oriental rat fleas, a type of flea that can transmit bubonic plague — the bacterial illness known as the Black Death that wiped out millions of people in Europe during the Middle Ages.

The good news is that the researchers found no evidence of plague bacteria itself. Without that, the rats and fleas are more of a nuisance than an actual threat.

“If these rats carry fleas that could transmit the plague to people, then the pathogen itself is the only piece missing from the transmission cycle,” study author Matthew Frye, an urban entomologist at Cornell University, said in press statement.

Plague still occurs in the U.S., although it is exceedingly rare, with perhaps a dozen cases reported each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases are mostly spread by encounters with wild rodents such as prairie dogs, wood rats, mice, rabbits and squirrels in the Southwest, especially northern New Mexico, northern Arizona and southern Colorado. A handful of cases have also been seen in California, Oregon and other western states over the last four decades.

The CDC says the last urban outbreak of plague in the U.S. occurred in Los Angeles in 1924-25.

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SOURCE: CBS NEWS

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