Time for FEHD to declare all-out war on rodents

December 10, 2018 18:05
A file photo shows a pest control worker laying poisonous bait in a lane in an urban area in Hong Kong. Government efforts to curb the rat population have been inadequate and ineffective, observers say. Photo: HK Govt

In September this year, Hong Kong saw the world’s first ever human case of rat hepatitis E, and then the second case in November.

Both of the patients who contracted the virus were reportedly living in rat-infested neighborhoods.

Even though the government has said that it is making every effort to combat the worsening rat problem in the city, the initiatives on monitoring and curbing the rat population have proven totally inadequate and ineffective.

Since 2000, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) has been measuring the magnitude of rat problems across the city through the Rodent Infestation Rate (RIR), which is determined by a process that involves FEHD inspectors placing non-toxic rat baits in 100 to 150 different locations in every district on a regular basis.

By calculating the number of baits that have been consumed by rodents divided by the total number of bait collected from the specific area, the FEHD can come up with the RIR.

However, the problem is, as it turns out, the RIR has failed to reflect the real gravity of the rat problem in Hong Kong.

For example, according to figures released by the FEHD, the RIR in Wong Tai Sin in the first half of 2018 only stood at a negligible 1 percent, and was ranked 15th among the 19 surveyed areas in the city.

Yet the truth is, the FEHD later admitted in a reply to media that the department actually received 106 reports of rat sightings during the same period of time.

Likewise, back in 2013, the FEHD claimed that the Sai Kung district recorded zero percent in its annual RIR. But again, the fact is, the department actually received a total of 419 complaints about rat problems in the area that year.

As a matter of fact, in its report No. 63 published in October 2014, the Audit Commission pointed out that the RIR was seriously losing touch with reality when it comes to the true proportions of the rat problem in the communities.

The report also identified a number of possible factors that could have skewed the RIR figures.

For instance, according to the Audit Commission report, the fact that the FEHD is using raw sweet potatoes as rat baits may be a fundamental reason why the findings are so inaccurate, because raw sweet potatoes are unattractive to rodents, not to mention that they would easily get rotten due to moisture.

Besides, there is often plenty of other food waste present at the surveyed areas where the baits are placed, which may substantially reduce the chance of rats going for the baits, thereby undermining the overall accuracy of the RIR findings.

Unfortunately, it’s been more than four years since the report No. 63 was released, but the RIR hasn’t seen any substantial improvement in its accuracy whatsoever, suggesting that the authorities haven’t even bothered to address the issue in a serious fashion.

Meanwhile, the efficacy of the rat elimination efforts of the FEHD is also unsatisfactory, not least because of the fact that, according to some in the industry, many of the rat prevention assignments have been outsourced, and the quality of service of these contractors can often vary a lot.

To make things worse, the FEHD has failed to properly coordinate the schedules of rat prevention and street cleaning routines in the local districts.

In consequences, on many occasions, rodenticides and pesticides placed at the various surveillance points are often washed away by street cleaners shortly after they were laid.

How can we expect such poorly executed and badly coordinated rat control measures produce any tangible result?

To address the problem, authorities must promptly and drastically review the current policy on rat control, including examining the efficacy of using raw sweet potatoes as baits, finding some other more effective bait ingredients and increasing the numbers of surveyed areas across Hong Kong.

In the meantime, the FEHD should also study the feasibility of introducing new types of rodenticides and rat traps, enhance oversight of its rat control team, as well as improve the coordination of its rat prevention and street cleaning work.

Moreover, the department should formulate a set of service performance standards to measure the efficacy of the rat control service provided by its contractors.

For entities that fail to meet the standards, the FEHD should subject the service providers to more severe punishment or even terminate their contracts immediately.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 5

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong