Rosa Flores knew two things: Her Bronx basement apartment was rotten with rats, and her son was getting sicker by the day.
She was stunned to discover the two were related — and Braulio Balbuena Flores, 44, nearly became the second Bronxite killed by an exceptionally rare and potentially lethal bacteria spread by rat urine.
“I was left with my mouth open,” the 73-year-old Flores said Wednesday. “We’ve had a rat problem here for a long time. ... My son could have died. He was in the hospital for two weeks.”
Two other people had been sickened with leptospirosis in December on the same block of the Grand Concourse near Yankee Stadium, the Health Department confirmed. It was the first death tied to the bacteria since 2012, and the city said there were only 26 reported cases of leptospirosis since 2006.
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The two other cases involved a pair of employees who worked at a small business on the Bronx block, said Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Travis Bassett.
One of those two died, while the other — like Flores — became seriously ill, but recovered.
In Flores’ case, city health officials descended on his vermin-infested building at 750 Grand Concourse this week as word of the outbreak became public.
“We typically identify two to three cases of leptospirosis every year,” Bassett said. “What is unusual here is that we had a cluster.”
Infection caused by rat urine kills one, sickens two in the Bronx
Asked about why the public had not been notified sooner, a Health Department spokesman said “as soon as we learned about the cluster, we immediately put out a Health Alert to providers, visited residents (Tuesday night) and spoke to elected officials.”
On Tuesday, city housing inspectors gained access to four of the building’s 14 apartments and found evidence of mice in each one. City officials noted that mice don’t transmit leptospirosis.
“Our role right now is to reduce the risk of exposure, which is mainly rodent control, and I’m very pleased with the progress that we’re making in that regard,” she said.
Records indicated the building — owned by one of the city’s most notorious landlords — faced 80 unresolved housing code violations.
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“This is a quality of life issue, it’s a health issue, and ... it’s a life and death issue,” said Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. “It begs the question ‘What are we doing about it?’”
The building is owned by Ved Parkash, cited two years ago by the city’s public advocate as New York’s worst landlord. A Daily News story from last April recounted one resident hearing rats scratching at the tiled walls of his shower.
Parkash defended himself before scurrying out of a raucous tenant meeting in the building’s lobby Wednesday evening.
“We have exterminators here every month for the last 29 years,” he said. “I knew we had rats. I’ve been working out the problem. It’s a neighborhood-wide problem. I can only work on my building.”
As a result of the rat infestation, the city also vacated eight illegal basement units in the building on Wednesday, city officials said.
Building residents like Brittany Jones, 25, said the situation was every bit as bad as it sounds. She has watched as the rats ran loose through the basement.
“It’s disgusting,” she said. “To think that people are getting sick and dying from this, it’s shocking.”
Her neighbor, Roberto Lebron, 40, echoed Jones’ gripes about the rat problem.
“I can’t even open the windows,” said Lebron. “(The rats) will come right up and chew through the screens.”
Lebron, who lives with his pregnant wife and their daughter, said he caught a rat two months ago that had crawled through a hole in his bathroom floor.
“My wife is like, ‘I want to get out of here. I don’t want to get sick,’” he said.
Victims typically become infected either through direct contact with rat urine or from urine-contaminated water, soil or food.
The bacteria typically enters the body either through cuts or mucous membranes in the the eyes, nose or mouth.
“This illness can be serious but is treatable with readily available antibiotics,” city Health Department officials said in a statement released Tuesday. “Symptoms can range from a mild illness with fever, headaches, chills, muscle aches, vomiting or diarrhea, to a life-threatening sickness that affects the kidneys and liver.”
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