A yearlong assessment of the city's residential mouse population found that what many of these rodents do carry are previously unseen viruses as well as bacteria capable of causing life-threatening human illness.
Even more worrisome than the bacteria themselves is the discovery that a large portion of the surveyed mice might prove resistant to antibiotics.
In the countryside, it might be different, Viney said, "because then the density of people is less, so mice would be in closer contact with wild animals, perhaps livestock, cows and sheep and pigs".
"This doesn't tell us that these mice are directly responsible for infecting humans", said W. Ian Lipkin, director of Columbia University's Center for Infection and Immunity. "But we haven't actually shown a chain of custody".
"Over the last few years, it's become abundantly clear that all living animals are full of bacteria and viruses", Viney said. In fact, there is little known about what kind of role house mice might play in transmitting infections.
And they probably resembled their cousins in other urban megacenters, too, Lipkin said. Primarily, the scientists caught the mice in or around garbage disposal areas in sub-basements, though five mice were trapped in food preparation/storage areas of a commercial building, and a single mouse was imprisoned in a private apartment. Plus, doing a genetic analysis of mouse droppings is expensive - and not glamorous. In a new study that looked at New York City mice, researchers discovered that those strains might not be such pleasant houseguests.
"I'd expect to see similar results in other cities", he said.
Watch out for house mice - they could be risky to your health.
So big-city apartment dwellers should not be alarmed by the findings, Drekonja said - nor should anyone with a seemingly mouse-free home be "smug" about it.
Just because certain bacteria are present does not suggest they are going to be pathogenic - meaning they can first infiltrate our systems and then cause disease, said Timothy Walsh, an expert on antimicrobial resistance at Cardiff University, who was not involved with the study. In all, they found 36 viruses but none that could cause human disease.
The study, published Tuesday in the journal mBio, looked at New York City house mice as "potential reservoirs for pathogenic bacteria" that may spread to humans.
The samples studied, gathered only in New York City, are "relatively limited in a geographic context", he said. "This is something that people need to take seriously", Lipkin said. "Contaminated areas should be thoroughly cleaned, and contaminated food should be discarded".
Drekonja advised transferring any bagged food into sealable containers that hungry mice can not penetrate. But Dr. Ian Lipkin, the study's senior author, said the findings at least raised the possibility that a person could acquire a bacterial disease that is hard to treat from our murine roommates. If you see droppings, or hear the sounds of scurrying in your walls, those are red flags. "That's why we should all wash our hands regularly", Drekonja said.
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