New York City Rats May Be Carrying Plague-Ridden Fleas

First Posted: Mar 02, 2015 11:31 PM EST

New findings published in the Journal of Medical Entomology reveal that since the1920s, rats in New York City were found to carry a flea species that's actually capable of transmitting plague pathogens.

"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 lead study author Matthew Frye, an urban entomologist with Cornell University's New York State Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program, in a news release.

For the study, he and colleagues collected more than 6,500 specimens of live well-known species of fleas, flies and mites from 133 rats. Among them are 550 plus Oriental rat fleas that are notorious for transmitting the bubonic plague, otherwise known as the Black Death. Researchers found that many of the rats carried a number of viral and bacterial diseases that could infect humans.

The incidence of the plague is much higher in other parts of the world. However, it's still known in small parts of the American Southwest via ground squirrels, prairie dogs and the fleas they harbor, infecting roughly 10 individuals a year.

Study authors noted that health officials should closely monitor city rats and the fleas that make there homes there. However, everyone can help make a difference by implementing IPM practices.

"Removing food and water and preventing access to shelter are key to knocking back rodent infestations," he added. "When we evict rats from our homes and workplaces, we need another core IPM practice -- careful sanitation. It's critical to rid buildings of the fleas, lice and mites that are left behind. "It's not that these parasites can infest our bodies," Frye continued, "but they can feed on us while seeking other rats to infest."

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