If you find subway rats to be more creepy than cute, a new study suggests you're right to be afraid. This research claims to be the very first look into the potential diseases our fair city's street-rodents carry, and the picture is pretty grim.
For the study, published today in the open-access journal mBio, researchers from Columbia University's Center for Infection and Immunity collected 133 Norway rats from five different sites in midtown and lower Manhattan. The researchers then tested the rats for a variety of bacteria and viruses that could lead to human diseases. Almost all of the rats (119/133) tested positive for at least one mammalian pathogen; researchers found nearly 20 different pathogens within the rat group as a whole.
Clostridium difficile: This one, referred to more often as C. diff, can cause nasty, drug-resistant infections. Usually, these occur in hospitals when patients' immune systems are already somewhat compromised. C. diff can be treated in many cases by a controversial procedure known as fecal microbiota transplantation.
Streptobacillus moniliformis: This is one of two bacteria known to cause a little something called Rat Bite Fever. As the name implies, it can be transmitted through bites or scratches from an infected rodent, but you can also get it from simply handling infected animals. But, it isn't spread between humans. The disease is effectively treated by antibiotics, but can be deadly if left untreated.
Although we don't know for sure how or how often transmission of these and the other subway-rat diseases could occur, lead author Cadhla Firth, PhD says it could happen in many ways. For one thing, rats leave pathogens behind in a variety of little presents for us, such as their saliva, feces, and urine. And, let's be real: Subway rats treat our public transport system as their living room, bedroom, and bathroom. So, fellow New Yorkers, let us all keep our hand sanitizer handy — and maybe leave our shoes at the door when we get home.