Rat population on rise, as are diseases they carry

April 17, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

Before the sun sets, rat No. 1 appears. Brown and beady-eyed, it skulks out of a ramshackle shed and onto a concrete trough. In the waning daylight, it drinks and washes in the rainwater, oblivious to the car that's pulled up a few feet away.

Greg Gurri Glass surveys the scene from his 5-year-old Chevy and smiles. The steel mesh traps aren't even unloaded yet, and already the rats are out. His job tonight will be easier.

"This is a pretty amazing place when the sun goes down," he says, walking through the Reservoir Hill alley.

Shattered glass, animal excrement and trash form an ugly patchwork here. An empty vodka bottle rolls down the pavement like a tumbleweed. And flies circle rats, dead and squashed, near a chain-link fence. Even the stray cats avoid them.

In five minutes, Dr. Glass, a Hopkins researcher who has studied rats for 10 years, counts 30 live ones in this alley bordered by Linden and Brookfield avenues. But that's only a fraction of how many have burrowed here.

"There are probably more rats than people in Maryland," he says matter-of-factly. "Very few alleys don't have them."

Not only are there more rats, but they are appearing in city neighborhoods and suburbs where they weren't seen before and spreading diseases of greater concern to health officials.

In Maryland, rat complaints rose significantly in recent years. Baltimore alone logged nearly 3,600 last year, an increase of more than 40 percent from 1991. In Anne Arundel County, reports of rat problems have more than doubled in two years.

And d-CON, a leading manufacturer of rodent traps and bait, recently ranked Baltimore eighth among cities in sales of its rodenticides.

"Everyone associates them with the inner city," says Dr. Glass. "They're certainly there, but you can find them anywhere now. Some of the ritziest horse farms around Baltimore have rats."

Budget cuts in eradication programs, warmer winters (excluding last year's) and half-hearted recycling efforts have helped the common Norway rat -- a brown furry animal that can reproduce 12 offspring in 21 days -- thrive.

Besides the property damage they do -- chewing through wood, cinder block and aluminum -- rats, which once spread bubonic plague, are carriers of disease, the most menacing of which may be hantavirus.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now believe the Norway rat -- Rattus norvegicus -- is not a carrier of the respiratory illness that killed more than 30 people in the Southwest since May, these rodents have spread less deadly forms traced to the area.

Three cases of a hantavirus called Baltimore rat virus were detected in the city, and 25 people, exposed by inhaling airborne particles of rat dust, urine or feces, were found to be infected in the late '80s, says Dr. Glass.

Although no one died from the renal and pulmonary illness, one patient suffered chronic kidney disease and wound up on dialysis.

'Reservoir of disease'

"Rats are one of the major reservoirs of disease," Dr. Glass says. "But a lot of the illnesses they cause are difficult to diagnose. . . . We simply don't know how many people get ill from rodent-borne diseases."

The search for an answer brings Dr. Glass, a blond cherub of a man with a rhinestone in his ear, to this alley on a warm spring night.

While teens blithely play pick-up basketball across the street, he researches whether the hantavirus first found in this alley some 13 years ago still exists here.

Navigating around soiled diapers, pizza boxes and egg shells, he places 12 cage-like traps baited with peanut butter by burrows.

He's eager to finish before sundown because rats are resistant anything introduced after dark. But the scar on his hand from a rat bite years ago reminds him to move gingerly through rat-infested alleys.

"It's getting to be about the right time," he says, setting the next-to-last cage near a dead evergreen.

The sign on a telephone pole tells him someone has been here before him. "Attention," it reads, "this block is under inspection for rats." The city's Rat Rubout program is treating for rats here, but there are still plenty to go around.

Jotting down the date, weather and alley conditions in his record book, Dr. Glass chortles when asked whether this book doubles as a guest registry for rats.

"They sign in," he says, "but they don't sign out."

A former whiskey distributorship in Southwest Baltimore serves as the nerve center for the city's war on rats. Except for the picture on the front door -- a rat with a slash mark through it -- Rat Rubout headquarters is a nondescript place. Even the drums filled with poison look as much like janitorial supplies as the stuff that causes disease-ridden rodents to meet their end.

Work has gotten tougher here since the program began in the late '60s. Initially, there was a staff of 90. Now 24 people cover the entire city.

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