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Plague threat looms as Bangladesh rat problem grows

DHAKA – The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) began distributing three million dollars of emergency food supplies to some 120.000 people in the southeastern tribal area bordering India and Myanmar last May, after the rat population exploded.

The rats — some weighing as much as 1.5 kilogrammes (3.3 pounds) — feed on bamboo forests in the hilly region.

Dhaka University zoology professor Nurjahan Sarker recently visited the hill tracts and sounded the alarm over the "devastating" impact of the year-long rat plague.

"The threats of a famine-fuelled conflict are real as the rats are destroying everything in the hills," she said.

Adding to the urgency of the situation, she said authorities must act fast to avoid an outbreak of deadly bubonic plague.

"I don’t think the government has understood the gravity of the crisis or figured out how to tackle such an unprecedented situation."

Steven Belmain, a rodent ecologist of Britain’s University of Greenwich — in Bangladesh studying the impact of the rat infestation — said the rodent population was doubling in size every three weeks.

This means, of course, they must spread into new areas in search of food.

"In addition to destroying nearly all field crops in the region, the rats get into people’s houses, eating stored food and damaging all sorts of personal possessions and biting people while they sleep," Belmain said.

"The whole region has been affected by localised famine, forcing people to depend on food aid. Food shortages will be a permanent feature here for many years," Belmain told AFP.

"We have captured 2.000 big rats from one hectare (2.47 acres) of land. I can tell you the situation is worsening as rats are invading new territories."

The WFP will begin a 2.6-million-dollar programme in April to help the thousands of people who have lost their livelihoods because of the rats.

The European Union, which spent EUR 1.65 million (two million dollars) on emergency relief to the area last May, has just announced a further assistance package of two million euro for the next 12 months.

The rats eat everything and then move on

The last rat flood in the region was in 1958, when the bamboo flowers last blossomed. Back then, the plague lasted three years.

Government minister Dipankar Talukdar said the situation had improved in some areas after the government introduced programmes to contain the rats.

But Belmain said the rats had left some areas only after they had eaten everything they could and then had to move on.

He said the risk of an outbreak of bubonic plague was high in the country of 144 million, one of the world’s poorest.

The disease is caused by bacteria picked up from the bite of fleas that are carried by rats, and which is believed to be the Black Death that killed millions in 14th century Europe.

An outbreak in Bangladesh would severely damage the economy, which has been growing at more than six percent a year during the past four years, thanks to a surge in exports.

An international quarantine would be imposed, which would see all flights into and out of the country suspended, as well as exports, dealing an incalculable blow to the economic well-being amid global catastrophe.

Modern precedent exists: a small plague outbreak in the western Indian city of Surat in 1994 led to the imposition of similar "national quarantine" measures with grave economic consequences.

Belmain said health and economic problems resulting from the rat infestation could exacerbate security issues in an area with a history of ethnic unrest.

The dwindling food supplies are already putting additional pressure on simmering tensions between the 13 ethnic minority groups in the area and recent settlers from other parts of Bangladesh.

The government signed a peace treaty with the region’s main tribal group in 1997, bringing an end to a two-decade long insurgency that left some 2.500 people dead.

Since then sporadic clashes have continued as some tribes reject the deal and others accuse the government of not fully implementing it.

"The rat flood could fuel renewed conflict in the region," Belmain said. "Hungry people are angry people."

Shafiq Alam / AFP / Expatica