Gee, if we didn't have enough to worry about. Now we have giant rats with infectious diseases.
By MARGARET EBRAHIM, Associated Press Writer
Wed Nov 29, 10:15 PM ET
As the rising sun danced across Florida's coastal waters, government workers in shorts and T-shirts knelt in a grassy island field and plucked wriggling rats from traps laid the night before. These weren't just any rats. They were 3-pound, 35-inch-long African behemoths. They squirmed as the workers, wearing protective gloves, removed green radio collars that had been tracking the rodents' movements. All 18 of the animals were carted away for research.
Darin Carroll kept a watchful eye on that dawn mission at Florida's Grassy Key Island. Carroll is no ordinary G-man. He's a disease hunter determined to stop the next outbreak.
Carroll works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and for three years he has painstakingly tracked the journey of Gambian rats from their African homeland, through the exotic pet trade, and to U.S. homes.
His quest is to prove what many scientists suspect: that African rodents imported as pets caused a monkeypox outbreak in the Midwest in 2003 that sickened dozens of adults and children with a virus related to smallpox. Scientists suspect Gambian rats may play a role.
Similar outbreaks have occurred in Africa.
While no one died from the U.S. outbreak, it sent warning alarms about the potential dangers of importing exotic pets captured in the wild.
Florida and U.S. officials are trying to raise enough money to kill off the Gambian rats that have proliferated on Grassy Key Island, just a few miles from the coast of one of the country's most populous states. The rats were imported to the island a few years ago.
"We tested about 10 to 20 rats a year ago," Carroll explained. "They were never exposed to monkeypox, but we don't know about the others out there."
Carroll's effort underscores one of the realities of animal-borne diseases that jump to humans. Scientists know little about many of the threats, and getting answers usually takes years.
The first time Carroll, 34, came face-to-face with a live Gambian rat was in 2003 when the CDC dispatched him to suburban Chicago during the monkeypox outbreak.
He and a colleague, Mary Reynolds, a CDC epidemiologist, went to the home of an animal dealer who sold pet prairie dogs to some of the people who became ill.
Carroll had been in disease hot zones before. He had searched the dense jungle of eastern Gabon for the animal host of Ebola, a bleeding disease that kills half the people it infects. And he traveled to a rural village near the Ganges river in Bangladesh during an outbreak of Nipah virus to test bats hanging from fruit trees near where children fell ill and died.
Often, Carroll had worn a head-to-toe protective suit when he entered a hot zone. But the animal dealer's home, with its white picket fence and manicured lawn, was unlike any hot zone he had experienced. So he left his "spacesuit" in the car trunk.
He didn't expect to see rodents in the house, nor did he want to alarm the neighbors.
As Carroll walked to the front door, the CDC called: Preliminary lab tests indicated they were dealing with monkeypox.
Monkeypox was first described in 1958 in Denmark when several monkey imports developed lesions. The disease emerged in the Congo in 1970 with sporadic outbreaks over the years, primarily in Central and West Africa. Ten percent of those infected can die, and there is evidence of person-to-person transmission.
Carroll hung up the phone a bit surprised, and walked into the dealer's home.
Prairie dogs skittered in cages on the living room floor. And Gambian rats squatted in cages on the kitchen counter.
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Feds collect giant rats in Florida
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