Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Liesel Elliott/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Rare rat-related disease shows up in New York City

The New York Times reports that “New York City is investigating three recent cases — one of them fatal — of a rare disease transmitted through rat urine.” The rare disease is leptospirosis, caused by a bacterium. The news reminded ScienceInsider that leptospirosis was the subject of an award-winning feature by Science's contributing correspondent Warren Cornwall in May 2016.

As Cornwall reported from Pau da Lima,  a slum on the outskirts of Salvador, Brazil:

Rats have long been one of the world’s most ubiquitous—and infamous—forms of urban wildlife, synonymous with pestilence and squalor. They’ve attracted only sporadic attention from scientists, however. Much about the secretive city rat—chiefly the Norway rat, Rattus norvegicus—remains a mystery. But as the world’s urban population surges and more people crowd into rat-plagued neighborhoods… the rodents are getting renewed attention from researchers and public health experts. Over the past decade, scientists in a number of cities have launched efforts to better understand rat behavior and evolution, and the role they play in spreading disease.

In Pau da Lima, that research has meant tromping through raw sewage and coping with dangerous gangs.

The Times notes that this is the first time that a cluster of leptospirosis cases has been seen in New York City. “From 2006 to 2016, 26 cases were reported in the city,” it reports, and “the Bronx had the highest number, eight.” The disease is treatable with antibiotics.