Time for govt to step up fight against rat infestation

May 24, 2019 18:52
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan and other officials inspect the rodent prevention and control work in Sham Shui Po on Thursday. Photo: ISD

In September last year, Hong Kong saw the world’s first human case of rat hepatitis E virus (HEV).

And it just got worse. So far this year, three men with underlying illnesses have also been infected with the rat HEV, and one of them has died.

It remains unknown whether these men had direct contact with rodents and how rat HEV was transmitted to humans.

But chances are, these people could have been indirectly infected by consuming food that came into contact with rats or contaminated by feces and urine of rats.

The fact that in recent years many districts in the city have been infested with rats will undoubtedly increase the chances of residents contracting the rat HEV.

Some experts have even warned that the recent cases could be an alarming signal for further outbreaks of the disease in the coming days.

As such, the problem of rat infestation in the city must not be taken lightly.

The recent rat HEV cases were found at the Yau Oi Estate in Tuen Mun, Ma Hang Chung Road in Kowloon City, and South Horizons in Ap Lei Chau.

It is said that residents, District Councillors and district-based groups in these areas have repeatedly alerted the authorities about the serious rat infestation situation, but their call for action has largely gone unanswered. 

Yau Oi Estate, for example, has an average of 20 to 30 rat sightings recorded every month.

In Kowloon City and South Horizons, there were also numerous reports of rats sneaking into people’s homes to look for food.

Last week, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee called an inter-departmental meeting to discuss the issue, after which she pledged that the government would mount an all-out sanitation work and anti-rodent operation across the city's 18 districts.

The problem of rodent infestation has been around for quite some time in the territory.

Although the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) has been devising multiple measures to contain the rat crisis, their efficacy has been disappointing because the methods adopted by the department to monitor and control rats are outdated.

The Rodent Infestation Rate (RIR) can no longer truly reflect reality.

Since 2000, the FEHD has used RIR and its trend to determine "the general situation of rodent infestation in individual districts and as the basis for devising anti-rodent measures and assessing the overall efficacy of rodent prevention and disinfestation work", according to the government.

One major factor that has undermined the accuracy of the RIR is that, based on what I have gathered, the FEHD was mainly using sweet potatoes as rat baits in the past.

Sweet potatoes are unattractive to rats since they can gain access to a lot more tastier food by invading homes and restaurants.

Worse still, the new rat baits the FEHD is now testing can only draw cockroaches and ants under most circumstances.

Some of these baits become loose when they come into contact with water and some are placed in improper locations, thereby further skewing the RIR results.

So the FEHD should stop looking at the RIR as the only way to measure the city's rat population.

It should also take into account other factors when it comes to formulating rat control policies, such as the complaints and opinions from local residents, District Councilors and community organizations.

Meanwhile, the FEHD has also come under fire for sticking to completely obsolete methods in fighting rats, such as using rat traps and rodenticides.

Besides, as some in the industry have pointed out, many of the FEHD’s rat prevention assignments have been outsourced, and the quality of service of these contractors often vary greatly.

Therefore, the FEHD must seek more high-tech solutions to containing the rat infestation problem. It can enhance its management quality by establishing a set of performance standards against which the work of the contractors will be measured.

In the meantime, the FEHD should do a better job in coordinating rat prevention and other street cleaning efforts across the city.

The department must also enhance its oversight of the work done by cleaning contractors. Outsourcers that have failed to meet the required standards should either be penalized or replaced.

(Editor’s note: On Thursday, Chan inspected the rodent prevention and control work in Sham Shui Po. A three-month cleaning campaign was launched on Monday to enhance the prevention and control of rodents at hygiene blackspots, she told media.

(Chan also said the government is ready to provide more resources, including manpower and equipment, to ensure the environment is clean, it will take tougher action against restaurants that put their refuse in back lanes, and enhance public education and publicity.)

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 20

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[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