A rare bacterial disease spread through rat urine is currently plaguing New York City. At time of writing, at least 15 people have contracted the disease so far this year, with 13 hospitalized and one dead.
Leptospirosis, or, in its most severe form, Weil’s disease, is caused by the corkscrew-shaped Leptospira bacteria. It is transmitted to humans through infected urine of various animals, including cattle, pigs, and dogs, although in New York City, rats are the most common cause. Most infections occur from direct contact with their urine, but can also be the result of contaminated soil or freshwater.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are an estimated 1 million cases worldwide every year, and around 59,000 deaths. Cases are rare in the US, however, and even rarer in New York – in the 15 years between 2006 and 2020, only 57 cases of leptospirosis were documented in the city. This makes the spike in 2021 highly irregular. Already, there have been more cases this year than in any other. All New York boroughs, with the exception of Staten Island, have reported infections.
Most cases involve flu-like symptoms: fever, chills, muscle aches, headache. Some may have no symptoms, while others may experience vomiting, diarrhea, or jaundice. It is rare that severe illness develops. Only about 10 percent of people with leptospirosis become seriously ill, experiencing kidney failure, liver damage, meningitis, difficulty breathing, and/or bleeding. Fortunately, the disease can be treated with antibiotics.
In September, the NYC Department of Health issued a public advisory following the 14th case reported – the number has since risen to 15. The vast majority of these were hospitalized with acute kidney and liver failure, and two also had severe lung problems. Only one person became infected while traveling, and among the local cases, most were exposed to environments with rat infestations. Health officials say they are investigating and, where necessary, working to remedy the infestations.
New York is notorious for its (particularly hardy) rats. Urban legend has it there are as many of them as there are humans, although statistics dispute this. In 2021 there has reportedly been an increase in rat sightings compared to last year, but this could say more about humans’ increased activity post-lockdown than the abundance of rats.
The department of health advises avoiding contact with rats, including areas in which they may have urinated. If this isn’t possible, cleaning areas rats have been, wearing rubber gloves, and washing your hands is recommended. You can find a full list of symptoms and preventative measures here. New Yorkers are also being told to report rat infestations to 311.