Rats plague cities: Kidney disease


BALTIMORE--Where s the Pied Piper when you need him? Evidence is accumulating that rats may be responsible for thousands of cases of kidney disease in American cities.

Scientists have known for several years that rats in many cities harbor viruses, called hantaviruses, which in Asia cause hemorrhaging accompanied by kidney disease. That bleeding disorder rarely appears in this country. But a research team led by immunologist Gregory Gurri Glass of Johns Hopkins University has gathered disturbing clues that a strain of the virus is quietly causing kidney trouble here without any other symptoms of disease.

In a study of more than 8,000 people in Baltimore, the researchers found that individuals with the most common type of kidney failure--called hypertensive end-stage kidney disease--are five times more likely to harbor antibodies to the hantavirus than are people with healthy kidneys. Antibodies indicate exposure to the virus, which can occur through inhalation of dust particles contaminated by rat urine, feces, or saliva.

The researchers calculate that in Baltimore about 6.5 percent of patients with this type of kidney failure have the rat virus to blame for their life threatening condition. Most of the victims are inner city poor, but the team has also found infected rats in "yuppie neighborhoods," Gurri Glass says.

Budget cutbacks have taken a big bite out of rat control programs in many parts of the country--a false economy, the researchers say. Of the $3 billion a year in Medicaid payments spent on dialysis and kidney transplants, they estimate about $100 million is attributable to the hantavirus. Rodent control, they say, would more than pay for itself.


By Benedict Carey, Ingfei Chen, Laura Fraser, John Hastings, and Rick Weiss.

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