Rats: Hurricane Sandy's Next Great Health Threat?

As New York City begins to recover from Hurricane Sandy, one growing concern is the spread of disease from the city's sprawling rat population. HuffPost Live hosts Nancy Redd and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin discussed the potential of rats spreading infectious disease Wednesday with HuffPost reporter Lynne Peeples, Scientific American blog editor Bora Zivkovic and disease ecologist Dr. Richard Ostfeld.

"With the full moon, high tide and Sandy storm surge, that's a lot of water that's rushing underground through New York City. And we know that there are potentially millions of rats living under there," Peeples said, cautioning that any concern remains pure speculation.

Peeples wrote an article earlier this week about the risk rats pose to spreading infectious disease, including leptospirosis, hantavirus, typhus, salmonella, and even the plague.

"They carry all of those and many more," Dr. Ostfeld said.

Dr. Ostfeld added that rats are unlikely to bite humans, but that they spread disease inadvertently through contaminating our air or food via feces, urine or even saliva.

"There are particles of these pathogens that rats are excreting all the time," he said. "They're sloppy creatures, as we all know. They can contaminate the environment, our food supply and even the air that we breathe."

Zivkovic distinguished between the rats that live on the surface of the city and those that live underground, noting that those that live underground might try to come to the surface, but might not make it.

"They are good swimmers, but they're not Michael Phelps," he said. "Swimming on the surface of the water maze in the lab or on the surface of the river is a different story from trying to climb up a pipe against the water that is rushing down."

Still, Dr. Ostfeld cautioned, a "mass dispersal" of underground rats is "likely."

"Probably there are some large number of rats that have been moving around quite a bit," he said. "My concern is that that is a recipe for a lot of disease transmission."