The Black Rat . . . Our Insidious Opponent

If we remove humans from the equation, rats have contributed to the deaths of more people than any other creature on the face of the earth. Rats carry and transmit more than forty deadly diseases. Scholars estimate that rats have caused the deaths of more people than the combination of all the wars, revolutions, revolts, and battles ever fought by man. One of the earliest incidents of a massive number of people dying because of rats, occurred in the sixth century. Between the years of 541 and 542 approximately fifty million people who lived in or near seaport communities along the Mediterranean Sea died in an epidemic which became known as the Justinian Plague.

In recent years, epidemiologists have used modern methods to test the bones of Justinian Plague victims. The results confirm that the Justinian Plague was actually the earliest known outbreak of bubonic plague—a contagious, often fatal disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The disease is usually transmitted by the bite of a flea from an infected host, especially a rat.

Today we know the black rat and the fleas it carried were responsible for the Justinian Plague. The black rat originated in the tropical areas of Asia. It made its first appearance in the Near East during Roman times. By the fifth century, the black rat had established its residency in every port city encircling the Mediterranean Sea.

During the seven hundred years following the Justinian Plague there were at least forty outbreaks of bubonic plague across the continent of Europe. Most of these flare-ups occurred in unsanitary urban areas where black rats were especially active.

Between the years of 1346 and 1353 the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, hit the cities of Europe especially hard. It is estimated that this epidemic killed between sixty and seventy million people. Most of the men, women, and children who perished were the poor who lived in crowded urban areas. The high rate of infection and death amongst the people living in Europe’s unsanitary slums did not go unnoticed. Some physicians treating plague victims realized a connection existed between flea bites and the disease. The Bubonic Plague of the fourteenth century eventually ran its course, and by the end of the century reports of the disease in Europe had just about disappeared.

However, the plague made a strong comeback in Europe during the mid-1500s. Nostradamus, who is more commonly known today as a seer who predicted future events, was one of the physicians who treated people infected with the disease during that outbreak. Historical records tell us that he was very successful in his efforts. Basically, Nostradamus advised his patients to boil water before drinking, sleep on a clean bed, avoid animals with fleas, and to move away from towns and villages that had a high number of people infected with the disease. Nostradamus’s success was undeniable and it did not take long before physicians throughout Europe began copying and giving Nostradamus’s advice to their patients. Once again, for no known reason, the plague all but vanished by the early 1600s.

But, in 1665 the plague returned with a vengeance. England was hit the hardest. The tell-tale signs of bubonic plague were easy to identify and almost everyone knew the symptoms. They consisted of the chills, diarrhea, vomiting, and the painful swelling of lymph nodes under the armpits and in the groin area. When people in London noticed their neighbors coming down with these symptoms, panic filled the air and thousands fled the city of London. Unfortunately, the great exodus helped to spread the plague to the smaller towns and villages outside of London.

By the summer of 1666 more than 100,000 Londoners had died from the plague. Sanitary conditions were horrid. The city of London was a virtual petri dish of infectious diseases. There were no functioning sewers, and water suitable for drinking was almost nonexistent. Garbage and human waste were routinely tossed out of windows and into the streets. Rats were everywhere. And, instead of dealing with the millions of rats living and thriving on the piles of rubbish, London officials, believing cats and dogs to be the prime carriers of the plague, ordered the killing of all cats and dogs.

Ironically, the number of deaths from the plague would have gone much higher if it had not been for the Great Fire of London in 1666. The fire began on the second of September and ended three days later. The inferno destroyed 15,000 homes and when the ashes cooled, most of the rats were gone.

The primary carrier of bubonic plague was, and still is, the black rat. After the Great Fire of London, the stronger brown rat, that had recently arrived from China, quickly replaced the black rat as the predominant rodent in Europe. This helped to stop the reoccurring bubonic plagues that had been sporadically ravaging Europe since the sixth century. The brown rat is also known as the Norway rat, sewer rat, street rat, wharf rat and several other names. It is a menace to all humans. But, unlike the black rat, the brown rat is not a good carrier of bubonic plague.

Today, there are still severe rodent problems in certain parts of Europe. But, in a strange sort of way, we can be thankful that it is the brown rat that is the problem, and not the easily infected black rat.

As for rats in other parts of the world; every continent has had serious issues with rats except Antarctica, where it is too cold for rats to survive.

In America, as in other parts of the world, rats thrive in the crowded slums of major cities. New York City has had a rat problem since it was founded by Dutch traders in 1624. For nearly 400 years, city officials have repeatedly sought and experimented with different methods to control their rat problem. They tried poison, but the results were usually more dead cats than rats. They tried traps, but the rats were too smart to get caught. They even tried sending workers into rat infested areas with flat shovels to smash the seemingly invincible rodents, but after a few of the workers were bitten, the City aborted that idea.

The rat problem in New York does not usually make the front pages of newspapers. But when something shocking happens involving rats, the entire news media will jump on the story. Some of the verified stories that have appeared in New York newspapers over the years include hundreds of reports of rats biting and chewing off the lips, fingers, toes and other parts of sleeping babies and young children. Tragically, some of the biting incidents resulted in the death of the child.

Another common and somewhat disgusting complaint is that rats have entered apartments through toilets. Apparently, many of these rodents are good swimmers and have learned to circumvent the sewer traps in some apartment buildings by diving down through the water on the street side of the trap and resurfacings on the house side of the trap.

There have also been numerous verified reports of rats stealing food off the tables of patrons in New York restaurants. That’s outright disgusting but stranger things have been known to happen—like the rat in New York City dragging a slice of pizza down some subway steps, or the video clip that shows two rats on subway tracks having a tug-of-war with a slice of pizza. Yes, it is hard to believe some of the stories. But, in today’s world with video cameras installed in everyone’s cell phone— rats have now become amusing internet stars. And, when a rat video goes viral, we all chuckle. But, epidemiologists around the world are not laughing. Some statistics show that the world’s rat population now exceeds 7 billion and is likely to double over the next twenty years. Unless immediate action is taken to control the ever increasing rat population, a future pandemic which will annihilate millions and affect every person on the planet, is imminent.