Rat Czar Required: NYC Offers Six-Figures to Battle Rodent-Related Disease Spike

New York City health officials are facing a surge in cases of leptospirosis, a rare disease linked to rat urine, one year after appointing a “rat czar” to combat the city’s rodent population. Sanitation workers, often exposed to rats while collecting trash, are reporting disproportionate instances of the illness. According to the president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, a shop steward even had to receive last rites due to severe symptoms of leptospirosis.

In 2023, the city experienced the highest number of cases of leptospirosis in a single year, with 24 reported cases. This year, there have already been six cases as of April. The disease can lead to acute kidney and liver failure, severe respiratory problems, and even death. The majority of cases have occurred among men, with the Bronx having the highest number of cases followed by Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

To address the growing issue of rat-borne diseases, Mayor Eric Adams appointed the city’s first “rat czar” in April 2023. This position aims to reduce the rodent population, promote cleaner streets, and explore new trash collection methods. However, despite efforts to improve cleanliness, the rat problem persists.

Sanitation workers, at a high risk of exposure to leptospirosis, are advised to change their gloves frequently to prevent rat urine penetration. While no sanitation workers have died from the disease, the union is backing a bill that would provide benefits to employees and their families if disability or death occurs due to the illness. Additionally, the city sanitation department is implementing measures to reduce direct contact with trash, which has already resulted in fewer rat sightings.

Health officials emphasize the importance of preventing contact with contaminated water, soil, or food where infected rats have urinated to avoid leptospirosis. The disease can lead to a range of symptoms such as fever, headache, diarrhea, jaundice, and rash, and without treatment, can progress to serious complications like kidney failure and respiratory distress.

Mitigating rat populations is crucial in stopping the spread of leptospirosis, especially in urban areas like New York City where rodent-related diseases pose a significant risk. The recent spike in cases underscores the importance of proactive measures to protect both city workers and residents from the dangers associated with rat exposure.