Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbek Rats Pose Rabies Threat

Post-Soviet system lacks the cash or techniques to keep rodents from spreading fear and disease in Fergana valley.
By Muazzam Ibrahimova

A plague of rats is sweeping Uzbekistan’s Fergana valley, outnumbering the residents six to one and raising serious concerns for public health.


The increase in the rat population has left many residents nervous about sleeping in their own homes, and a number of scare stories – of babies being attacked by vermin in their cribs, for example – are circulating.


In broad daylight, dirty-looking rats can be seen scurrying around in streets, stairwells and even houses, and specialists believe that their boldness is a sure sign that the rodent population has grown out of control.


The problem is at its most acute in the Andijan region, where local doctors say that around 85 per cent of all patients are seeking treatment for rat bites – which can lead to infection with rabies.


Last year, more than 1,300 cases of rat bites were recorded in the region – a figure higher than the years 1999 to 2001 added together – and 330 people have been treated for such injuries in the first fourth months of 2003 alone.


Local resident Nasiba Holbekova was bitten while she slept, and developed such worrying symptoms that she was kept in hospital for more than a month – which cost her around 100 US dollars, a lot of money here.


Andijan city hospital doctor Zokirjon Alimov told IWPR that the rodent problem had to be addressed immediately. “A rat bite can cause rabies, which is very dangerous and can lead to death. If we don’t start systematically eradicating them, it will be hard to keep the situation under control,” he warned.


During the Soviet era, effective pest control programmes kept the rat population under control. But when Uzbekistan gained its independence in 1991, a lack of money led to extermination slipping down the regional authorities’ list of priorities.


Last year, the Andijan authorities allocated around 15,000 dollars to rodent control, but sanitation managers in the region believe this is insufficient.


Azizbek Ahmadjonov, deputy head of the Andijan city disinfection office, told IWPR, “Everyone forgets that a rat can have a hundred offspring in a year. This means that the funds we are getting are clearly inadequate, and we have already asked for an additional 40,000 dollars.”


Fergana’s rat problem was first raised at government level in 1999, after a baby was bitten in a maternity hospital, and the following year a draft paper outlining possible solutions was produced by the national zoology institute. However, this was never published, and little seems to have come of it.


As well as the economic difficulties faced by the authorities, the former Soviet republic no longer has access to the chemicals and techniques that were in common use before independence. As a result, many local business managers have decided against rodent control, as their first concern is to pay their workers.


Uzbek disinfection stations use old poisons left over from the Soviet era – but these often kill more households pets, stray animals and birds than vermin.


An added complication is that such poisons can build up inside a rodent’s body, causing internal bleeding and pain, which makes the creature more aggressive and therefore more of a danger to humans.


While the authorities seem unable to find an effective method of dealing with the rats, ordinary people have developed their own ways of stamping out the vermin.


For two years, Andijan farmer Hakimjon Ganiev has watched his rice and wheat harvests being decimated by rats – just one animal can eat more than 30 kilograms of cereals a year.


Eventually he decided to manufacture his own deterrent – mashed potato laced with crushed glass. “At first it worked, but not any more. I think the rats have got wise to the danger, so now I’m thinking up new bait recipes,” he told IWPR.


Andijan university professor Anvarjon Ummatov believes that the problem could be solved by introducing a new natural predator such as the American mink.


“This cunning animal can crawl into rat holes and destroy the vermin,” he said. “But minks need certain conditions to live and thrive, and we are now trying to create these with a research grant from the regional administration.”


Muazzam Ibrahimova is an independent journalist in Andijan.