Rats Life Cycle
21st century plague discovered by scientists
A new disease that is passed from rats to humans via fleas, much like the Black Death, has been discovered by scientists.
Research suggests that brown rats, the biggest and most common rats in Europe, may now be carrying the bacteria Photo: Alamy
The bacteria can cause serious heart disease in humans are being spread by rat fleas, sparking concern that the infections could become a bigger problem in humans.
Research published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology suggests that brown rats, the biggest and most common rats in Europe, may now be carrying the bacteria.
Since the early 1990s, more than 20 species of Bartonella bacteria have been discovered. They are considered to be emerging pathogens, because they can cause serious illness in humans worldwide from heart disease to infection of the spleen and nervous system.
“A new species called Bartonella rochalimae was recently discovered in a patient with an enlarged spleen who had travelled to South America,” said Professor Chao-Chin Chang from the National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan.
“This event raised concern that it could be a newly emerged pathogens. Therefore, we decided to investigate further to understand if rodents living close to human environment could carry this bacteria.”
Scientists have found that rodents carry several pathogenic species of Bartonella, such as B. elizabethae, which can cause endocarditis and B. grahamii, which was found to cause neuroretinitis in humans. Although scientists are unsure about the main route of transmission, these infections are most likely to be spread by fleas.
Ctenophthalmus nobilis, a flea that lives on bank voles, was shown to transmit different species of Bartonella bacteria. These pathogens have also been found in fleas that live on gerbils, cotton rats and brown rats.
The researchers took samples from 58 rodents, including 53 brown rats, two mice (Mus musculus) and three black rats (Rattus rattus).
Six of the rodents were found to be carrying Bartonella bacteria; 5 of these were brown rats. Four of the rodents were carrying B. elizabethae, which can cause heart disease in humans, and one of the black rats was found to be harbouring B. tribocorum.
The Black Death was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, widely thought to have been caused by a bacterium named Yersinia pestis, or Bubonic plague.
It was spread by rodents in the 14th century and centuries after that, killing an estimated 75 million people worldwide.
By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent
Published: 7:29PM GMT 24 Nov 2008
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