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Monday, September 6, 1999 Published at 23:14 GMT 00:14 UK

World: Americas

Nicaragua plagued by rats

The rats are responsible for the spread of a potentially-deadly disease

By Latin America corrrespondent Peter Greste

Nicaragua has declared a national state of alert to deal with a rat plague that is threatening an estimated 300,000 people.

The BBC's Peter Greste reports: "The rodents have devastated local economies"
Reports from the affected area say that the rats have devastated local crops, although aid agencies say they are more concerned about disease.

Since April, hundreds of thousands of hungry rats have swept through north east Nicaragua, devouring the region's staple crops of corn, rice and beans.

There are no official estimates of just how much food has gone, but some reports put the figure as high as 95%.

Emergency supplies needed

One aid official from the agency Care International said about 300,000 people living in at least a dozen towns had been affected.

The rodents have devastated local economies and there are calls for emergency food supplies.

But the real problem is disease. Rats spread leptospirosis by urinating in domestic water supplies. It's potentially fatal but it is also often confused with flu and meningitis, both common illnesses in the region.

[ image: Hurricane Mitch was a serious blow to Nicaragua]
Hurricane Mitch was a serious blow to Nicaragua
That has caused massive problems for local medical services. They are still struggling to get back on their feet after Hurricane Mitch destroyed much of the region almost a year ago and the last thing they need now is another medical emergency.

The federal government is working with aid agencies to distribute medicines and rat poison. At the same time authorities are trying to find the plague's cause.

Sergio Narvaez from the ministry of agriculture said the El Nino weather phenomenon caused fires that killed off a lot of the rats' natural predators.

Soon after, Hurricane Mitch swept through, drowning millions of animals, a ready source of food for the rats, and it left months of high humidity, ideal conditions for breeding.

It seems that the legacy of Hurricane Mitch won't leave Nicaraguans alone.

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