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Plague of rats hits Nicaragua

HURRICANE MITCH, which devastated four countries in central America last year, is now being blamed for a plague of rats threatening an estimated 300,000 people in Nicaragua.

Hordes of scavenging rodents have already worked their way through vast areas of crop land in the north-east of the country, much of which was destroyed by the hurricane nearly a year ago. Up to 95 per cent of the region's food supplies, including staple goods such as beans and rice, have been devoured by the rats, leaving thousands of families dependent on emergency aid.

But it is the threat of deadly disease that is even more worrying to the authorities and aid agencies. The immediate risk to people in as many as 20 towns and villages is the spread of leptospirosis - a highly unpleasant, and potentially fatal, disease caused by rats urinating in domestic water supplies. The symptoms of the disease are often confused with those of 'flu or meningitis.

Nicaraguan authorities yesterday declared a state of national alert, but the country's ill-resourced medical services - still struggling to cope in the aftermath of the hurricane - would be hard-pressed to deal with another medical disaster, say aid workers.

The plague is being blamed partly on el Nino, the weather system that caused drought and bush fires, killing off many animals that prey on rats. Hurricane Mitch then tore through the region, leaving thousands of dead creatures for the rats to feed on.