New York City seeing uptick in rat urine illness

Rat urine is to blame for an uptick in flu-like illnesses across New York City, according to mayor Eric Adams.

Leptospirosis is a potentially deadly bacterial infection that can be contracted through urine from infected animals or contact with water, soil or food contaminated with the urine of infected animals.

Animals capable of getting the disease include dogs, cattle, pigs and horses. If infected, humans may experience symptoms such as fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting, diarrhoea, cough, conjunctival suffusion, jaundice and rash.

New York Rat Czar (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
New York Rat Czar (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Without treatment, the disease can cause kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For years, New York City saw a steady number of cases of the disease due to its ever-constant rat population.

But the number of diagnoses has recently gone up, with 24 reported cases in 2023 alone, the highest number in a single year, according to the city’s Department of Health. So far, six cases of the disease have been reported in 2024.

For comparison, the city saw three cases per year from 2001 to 2020. Officials say one of the causes for the increase is residents leaving plastic trash bags out on the street.

“It’s a real problem”, Mr Adams said when asked about the topic during a Thursday news conference in Albany. “We have too many plastic bags on our streets”.

Mr Adams appointed Kathleen Corradi to be the city’s first-ever “Rat Czar”, a decision he said put his team ahead of the curve in the fight against rodents. He said that ongoing efforts, like the use of trash containers instead of bags, are “running rats out of our town”.

He added, “People need to connect the dots. Plastic bags mean rodents. Get the plastic bags off our streets, you will have a major dent in the rat mitigation problem”.

Speaking at the same news conference, Deputy Mayor Meera Joshi said that New Yorkers leave out 44 million pounds of trash every day. Anyone working in garbage disposal, such as supers, should wear gloves to protect themselves from contracting the disease, she said.

Mr Adams’s office has also invested $3.5m to launch the Harlem Rat Mitigation Zone, an initiative to lower the number of rat sightings in the borough. Officials have noted that there’s been a 20 per cent decrease in non-emergency rat calls since the launch of the efforts.