Opinion Column

I smell a (Vancouver) rat

By Ada Slivinski, 24 Hours Vancouver

REUTERS

REUTERS

Pest control companies in Vancouver have said 2015 was a record-setting year for calls about rodents. Brett Johnson, president of the Structural Pest Management Association of B.C. told the CBC, “There’s been an increase for sure.”

 

We don’t know how big an increase because politicians turn a blind eye to the problem — refusing to study, let alone address, the issue.

Rodents of all kinds carry disease. As much as we’d like to think Black Death or rat-associated Bubonic Plague outbreaks will stay in the Middle Ages, unfortunately this disease isn’t bound to the history books.

There have been 13 outbreaks of the nefarious disease between 2009 and 2013, including places like Peru, China and as many as 600 cases in Madagascar.

Dr. Chelsea Himsworth, lead researcher for the Vancouver Rat Project, said there is a pronounced knowledge gap in Canada when it comes to rats. The rodent outbreak is not being taken seriously by political leaders as a potential health hazard.

Mayor Gregor Robertson has said in the past that the increased rodent sightings couldn’t possibly be linked to the city’s mandatory food scrap composting program, despite the fact that the jump seemed to happen around that time.

Proponents of the green bins argue that nothing has changed except the location of food waste — what was previously in garbage bins has just been moved to another container. But the containers are filled and re-filled with nothing but rotting food, tough to clean, and their contents are seldom bagged, making them attractive to rodents.

Last year, TransLink received complaints about infestations in SkyTrain stations and rats took over the playground of a local daycare — located adjacent to several green bins — to the point where children were no longer allowed to play outside.

Himsworth has found that Vancouver rats are infected with a number of zoonotic pathogens, including the superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) — never-before seen in rats. Her research shows the rats are likely contracting it from infected people in the Downtown Eastside and though the superbug hasn’t yet made the leap back from rats to humans, that transmission pattern is not unlikely. Himsworth said rats can be a sponge, soaking up bacteria like E. coli through their contact with human sewage.

It all sounds pretty scary. So why aren’t officials taking this concern seriously? When interviewed by the Georgia Straight, a spokesperson for Vancouver Coastal Health said there was no cause for concern and that disease from rats was unlikely to be transmitted to humans.

HealthLink BC’s recommendation for getting rid of rodents is to kill them with traps, but the Vancouver Rat Project found this strategy could actually make the problem worse by causing other rats in the area to move.

All it takes is one rat carrying the bubonic pathogen to jump on a ship headed to Vancouver to bring the disease here. As for MRSA, our rats already have that. Vancouver rats present a real health hazard, and it’s time politicians woke up to this fact.

Ada Slivinski is a communications consultant based in Vancouver. Contact her at adaslivinski@gmail.com and on Twitter @adaslivinski 

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