New York is home to around two million rats who live in the city’s subways, streets and sewers.
Now researchers claim many of these creatures carry a flea species capable of transmitting the bubonic plague to humans.
Among them were more than 500 Oriental rat fleas, notorious for their role in transmitting the bubonic plague.
The Cornell and Columbia University research team looked most closely at the rat flea because of its potential as a vector for human diseases.
‘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,’ said Professor Frye.
Today, the plague is found in the American Southwest among ground squirrels, prairie dogs and the fleas they harbour, infecting roughly 10 people each year.
DNA MATCHING BUBONIC PLAGUE FOUND IN NEW YORK SUBWAYS
- A recent sampling of bacteria found in the New York City subways also found traces of DNA matching bubonic plague, as well as other pathogens.
- Last month, scientists from Weill Cornell Medical College unveiled their findings after 18 months swabbing turnstiles, ticket kiosks, railings and benches for DNA on the world’s largest transport system.
- They found 15,152 different types of microorganisms that share the train with its 5.5 million riders, including bubonic plague, dysentery and meningitis.
- Most of the bacteria the group found were harmless, though nearly half (48 per cent) of the DNA found matched no known organisms.
Researchers also saw 67 different bacteria species associated with diseases on the subway’s surfaces in about 12 per cent of their samples, though bacteria in general made up nearly 47 per cent.
Some bacteria associated with ailments such as food poisoning are found at nearly half of the 466 open stations shared by germs, riders and rats.
In other parts of the world, the incidence of plague is higher.
‘It’s not that these parasites can infest our bodies,’ Professor Frye says, ‘but they can feed on us while seeking other rats to infest.’
The scientists said that this was the first pest survey of its kind in New York City since the 1920s.
Back then, officials found that the city’s rats had less than one Oriental rat flea each.
But in this study, there were on average 4.8 fleas per rat, and in some areas, the flea index was 25.7 fleas per rat.
However, the scientists said none of the fleas carried the plague bacteria, known as Yersinia pestis — although some of them harboured potentially harmful strains of Bartonella bacteria.
While this disease is unlikely to kill the people it infects, it can cause extreme fevers.
‘These pathogens can cause a wide range of clinical syndromes, some severe,’ said Professor Firth.
The results suggest public health officials should closely monitor city rats and the fleas that call them home.
But everyone can contribute, Professor Frye says, by ‘removing food and water and preventing access to shelter are key to knocking back rodent infestations.’
A recent sampling of bacteria found in the New York City subways also found traces of DNA matching bubonic plague, as well as other pathogens.
Source: Daily Mail
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