NEW YORK—The rare disease goes by many names. Mud fever, sewerman’s flu, swamp fever—those are just a few of the monikers for the illness caused by the bacterium Leptospira.
As the names indicate, the disease is associated with filth, and in the developed world, it is exceedingly rare. But in the Grand Concourse neighborhood of the Bronx, where the conditions in some of the buildings have long been called unlivable by residents, the disease found its way into the vast rat population and has now been linked to a cluster of infections that have left one resident dead and two others severely ill.
The authorities ordered people living in eight illegal apartments in a subcellar at 750 Grand Concourse, one of the buildings where the infections occurred, to vacate the premises, and they have stepped up efforts to combat the rat population through extermination and better garbage management.
“I want to make clear that this is a very rare infection,” Dr. Mary Bassett, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said on Wednesday, calling the flare-up of leptospirosis cases a “cluster” on this one Bronx block, rather than an outbreak or an epidemic.
“Since 2006, we’ve seen some 26 cases in New York City. The last data we have for the country as a whole suggests in 2015 there were fewer than 30 cases diagnosed across the whole country.”
The disease is caused by exposure to an infected animal’s urine, Bassett explained, not through bites or by touch or by watching a rat scurry across subway tracks. She urged anyone in the area with flu-like symptoms to seek medical help. The disease can be treated with antibiotics.
While the disease might be rare, for residents in the area, the exposure to rats is nothing new.
Rosa Flores, 73, has lived for 10 years with her son, her daughter and her nephew in one of the eight illegal basement units in the affected building. Rats have always been a problem, she said, but the situation has been worse in recent months, especially since their cat ran away.
The cramped two-bedroom apartment was littered with chipped paint and broken appliances; rats had gnawed several holes in the floor and walls, which were loosely patched over by the city’s Department of Buildings.
Last month the family came home to find the refrigerator door ajar and rats crawling everywhere. Soon after, Flores’s son, Braulio, 43, became sick. “He had a bad fever; his whole body ached; he looked terrible,” she said in Spanish.
She finally prevailed upon him to go to Lincoln Hospital, where he spent two weeks in intensive care. He was released last week, and the family was relocated to a hotel in Queens.
“I want the city to come check everything out because the rat population is a dangerous thing,” Flores said.
The landlord of 750 Grand Concourse, Ved Parkash, was listed as one of the city’s worst landlords by the public advocate, Letitia James, in 2016. The Department of Buildings alone has some two dozen open violations against the property, said Rick Chandler, the department commissioner.
Parkash did not immediately respond to a call to his office seeking comment. Maria Torres-Springer, commissioner for the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, acknowledged the landlord’s troubled history but said his stewardship of the property was improving.
“There are open violations on this building,” she said. “However, if you look at the trend over the last couple of years, the number of open violations for the building has actually gone down significantly.”
She added: “A year ago there were about 300 open violations. That number today is about 80.”
The Bronx borough president, Ruben Diaz Jr., said the city had not been aggressive enough in fighting on behalf of the residents.
“It is unfathomable to me that in this day and age, in one of the most expensive cities in the world and at our most technologically advanced point as a civilization, the city cannot mitigate the rat problem, nor does it have good ideas to do so,” he said in a statement.
He continued: “750 Grand Concourse has long been regarded as one of the worst buildings in the city, with nearly 1,500 complaints of all kinds, including rodents, with many unresolved. The city knows this and has done nothing to help the tenants alleviate this issue, not only in this building but in communities across the five boroughs.”
Late on Wednesday Mayor Bill de Blasio released a statement, saying: “We stand with the tenants. After deploying numerous tools to address persistent problems at this building, we are working with housing advocates and tenants to lodge an action against the landlord to take over operations. We will not rest until we’ve exhausted every measure to ensure the health and safety of these residents.”
Sharon Green, 60, works for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and has lived in a basement apartment near the Flores family for nearly a decade.
“The conditions are terrible, and they’ve always been like this,” she said. “Lately, it’s gotten even worse, though.”
Green said she often heard rats scampering beneath her floor, which keeps her dog, King James, up at night and worries her. Last March, she said, an enormous hole opened up in the floor of the basement laundry room, which has since been cordoned off.
“We complain and complain, and nothing happens,” she said. “It’s like someone has to die for anyone to pay attention.”