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NYC Rats Carry A Lot of Bacteria, Study Finds

Update Date: Oct 15, 2014 12:02 PM EDT

In New York City, seeing rats in subway train tracks or by huge bags of garbage is inevitable. Since these rats scavenge the city's trash, it should be no surprise that they are pretty filthy animals. In a new study, researchers fro Columbia University set out to examine just how dirty NYC rats are. The team discovered that these rats carry a lot of bacteria and viruses that could be harmful to human health.

"We decided to get a baseline to figure out what was in New York City streets and elsewhere so if something new appeared then we'd know it," said Dr. Ian Lipkin, an infectious disease expert at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health according to ABC News.

For this study, the researchers trapped 133 rats. They identified a total of at least 20 different kinds of bacteria and viruses. 18 of the viruses were unknown. Two of these viruses, hepaciviruses, were very similar to the hepatitis virus in humans. Another type of virus that the team found is called the Seoul Hantavirus, which can be quite deadly.

"It's not easy to trap rats, they're really smart," Dr. Lipkin said. "Rats are sentinels for human disease. They're all over the city; uptown, downtown, underground. Everywhere they go, they collect microbes and amplify them. And because these animals live close to people, there is ample opportunity for exchange."

The researchers are unsure whether or not rats have an impact on the health of humans. However, some of the bacteria, such as E. Coli and Salmonella, can cause foodborne illnesses. Other pathogens found on the rats can cause fevers.

"These viruses may or may not have any links to human illness, but it is good to be able to describe them in detail," David Patrick, the director of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, said according to the New York Times.

The study was published in the journal, mBio.

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