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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lack of Cash Gives Rats The Run of Vladivostok

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- Cuts in city funding to exterminate rats over the past year have caused a surge in the disease-bearing pests in apartments, schools and hospitals, Vladivostok sanitary officials warned this week.

Throughout the port city of 700,000, there has been a 250 percent increase in the rat population since October, the last time the city paid for rodent extermination. And with the spread of rats, there has been a growing caseload of rat-related diseases among residents.

One health official said that although so far there have been no recorded cases, rats could carry the plague.

"It is getting worse and worse," said Dr. Yekaterina Zaitseva, chief physician at the State Committee for Sanitary Epidemic Supervision in the municipal disinfection station, which is responsible for rodent extermination. "The rat population is going to keep increasing until there is an explosion. It will go on until rats are jumping in the streets before anybody kills them."

Vladivostok Mayor Viktor Cherepkov's office, hit by a cash crisis, canceled funding for rat abatement last spring, and since then there was only one extermination effort, in buildings with the highest infection rates. The Mayor's Office blames the regional administration, for not providing the money. As rat numbers increased, so have the incidents of rat-related diseases among humans, such as leptospirosis and hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome.

Hemorrhagic fever is the most widespread disease in the Primorye region rat population. Ninety-six percent of all rats carry the disease. In humans it leads to a kidney ailment accompanied by high temperatures, which is fatal in 12 percent to 14 percent of the cases if untreated, said Victoria Ivanis, the regional administration's chief infection expert. In 1996, 66 people were treated for hemorraghic fever; last year, the number doubled.

"The situation is very serious," Ivanis said.

Last week, a 35-year-old woman contracted the disease after coming into contact with rat feces in the public hallway of her apartment building, Ivanis said. And the Vladivostok Medical University had to kill all its lab rats because they became infected with hemorrhagic fever and spread the illness to staff.

Even more alarming, rats can potentially carry the danger of plague, said Gennady Murnachyov, head of Vladivostok's federal anti-plague laboratory. Reports that the city's rat population is plague-infected are incorrect, Murnachyov said, but the danger is real.

Vladivostok's harbor receives constant ship traffic from other Asian ports, and in 1990 a rat was found with plague antibodies in its system, indicating that it had survived the disease, Murnachyov said. But the anti-plague laboratory is broke, so it no longer keeps a count of the rat population and has few resources to study rodent-borne diseases.

"We cannot conduct the proper monitoring," Murnachyov said. "Instead of doing checking for the plague every month, we can only do it twice a year."

Zaitseva said her office no longer exterminates rats in schools, hospitals and clinics, as it used to; the institutions cannot afford the service.

"At nights the children are left alone, and those rats and mice scare the kids in the hospitals," Zaitseva said. "Those parents and doctors call me. Sometimes we exterminate the rats out of charity. But that isn't enough; you have to do it regularly."