Weil’s Disease

Rats can transmit approximately 14 diseases or infections to humans - some via their fleas and the most well known Weil's Disease via their urine or more rarely by biting.

The rat population is growing at an alarming rate. Milder winters, a decline in raptor birds in some areas, junk food and general rubbish, resistance to tradition poisons such as Warfarin and cut backs in local government expenditure on health and environmental controls all contribute to the problem. There is now a species completely resistant to poisons wherein their DNA has developed adding a factor that makes them immune to known poisons. the only way to control these is by trapping or air gun shooting or the use of terriers (a clause in the Hunting Bill 2005 permits the use of dogs and ferrets in the hunting of rats and rabbits). Adding to the problem, fortunately a very small minority, are the people who go out with bags of waste food to feed them.

Some of our cemeteries have wildlife or eco-friendly areas so poisons and traps are not used. Some authorities use metal bait boxes where the rat has to enter a tube to collect the bait but of course other species may also be tempted to try them.

In some places regular shoots with air guns take place to help to keep the numbers down.

When working in a cemetery there is a high possibility that you will come across rats or traces of urine and it is essential that proper precautions are taken to prevent any contact. The urine is constantly sprayed to mark territory and in many cases remains pungent for some weeks, even heavy rain does not break it down. The harmful bacteria survives best in damp grass or in water.

Certain professions are at greater risk of catching Weil's Disease but what is not generally appreciated is that dogs eating or licking grass are also likely to catch it. Vets have from time to time carried out PM's and found that Weil's Disease was the cause of death.

Normally the infected urine enters the body via a cut or sore or by a hand touching the nose, the lips or on food taken with unwashed hands etc. One recent death was a man rolling his own cigarettes and licking the edge to seal the paper after working in a rat infested garden. However it must be stressed that only a small percentage result in death but the experiencing of the disease can be very unpleasant.

Normally GP's and hospitals would be aware of the higher risk to sewage workers, slaughter men. farm labourers, cavers and people working with pools of water [including gypsies and travellers washing in streams] and would be 'tuned' in to diagnose the symptoms. However people not normally in contact with the rat population could be incorrectly diagnosed as some of the symptoms are similar to gastric 'flu. So an office worker who helps out in a cemetery friends group or a pensioner who picks up litter in a churchyard would not necessarily be picked out as a potential Weil's victim. Therefore if you unwell and seek medical assistance tell the doctor that occasionally you work in a rat infested area.

The incubation period is 7 to 14 days, a fever develops, muscular pain, loss of appetite and vomiting. Later there may be surface bruising on the skin, sore eyes, nose bleeds and jaundice. The hospital can via a blood sample make an early diagnosis so again it is essential that the patient should identify that there may have been in contact with infected urine.

Groups working in a cemetery should always wear gloves and if tap water and paper towels are not available then either wipes or the appropriate anti-biotic hand gel should be available and the development of a 'clean up' two minutes practice as the session ends or before a break for food should be encouraged.