Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Rat bites--how dangerous are they?

Recently I was reading Katherine Boo's nonfiction book--Behind the Beautiful Forevers--about life in the slums of India.  It's a deeply disturbing account of the lives, hopes, and misfortunes of people living in abject poverty.

There were numerous accounts of children bitten by rats, including one boy with numerous infected rat bites on his butt.  It was horrifying.  But I wondered if it could really be true.  So I began an internet search.

Here are my findings, in short

Wild rats definitely do bite people.  Children under five years old are most at risk, while they are sleeping.  Most bites occur to the extremities, where the skin is uncovered.

Rat bites happen all over the world.  In the USA, roughly 20,000 cases of rat bite occur per year, most often in substandard housing to people of low socioeconomic status. Rat bites are also reported by pet owners, pet dealers, and laboratory workers.

It's suspected that rat bites are substantially under reported.  Nevertheless, on a per capita basis, rat bites are rare.

Rat bites can lead to "rat bite fever," which can be fatal in about 10% of cases, if left untreated.  The best precaution (other than avoiding rats), is to immediately wash the area of the bite, and apply an antiseptic, then visit a doctor.  Rats do not normally carry rabies in the USA.

Other than the danger of fever, rat bites are usually no more serious than a small cut.  But in very rare cases, they can do real damage to babies, leading to sensational stories and unreasonable fear.

Overall, the best way to control rats is to keep a clean living area.  Make sure all garbage cans in the area are securely covered, that pet food is not left out, and that there is little cover for rats in your yard.

Rat bites in India

In the slums of India, rat bites must be more common, because those conditions lead to high populations of rats, and many people sleep on the ground.

Still, I suspect that rat bites are not happening frequently, to nearly everyone, in the slums of India.  Otherwise, I believe there would be more reports on the internet, and more precautions taken, even in Katherine Boo's book.  So I suspect that Ms. Boo exaggerated a bit.

India is a big country.  There are reports of people being bitten by rats in hospitals.  Even a government official was bitten, while staying in a government-run guest house.

Rat bite fever
Best overall source on rat bites

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