by Meheretu Yonas, Luwieke Bosma and Frank van Steenbergen
Hygiene is arguably the more forgotten component in WASH. Within WASH, water and sanitation systems have received much attention and there have been important programs to promote hand washing and menstrual health and hygiene, rightly so. But several other dimensions of hygiene do not get the attention they deserve, in particular village pests that carry common diseases which they transmit to humans through direct contact, food contamination or other pathways.
Pest rodents (rats and mice) are important carriers of pathogens that cause diseases in humans and domestic animals. Different rodents have different behaviour and have different propensities to transmit those diseases. Some rodents, like the roof rat (Rattus rattus), prefer to live in the houses and storage areas. Other rodents may prefer the fields.
There are about 60 known diseases transmitted to humans and animals by rodents. Examples of diseases and parasites of public health importance include leptospirosis, salmonellosis, giardiasis, murine typhus (rickettsia), capillariasis and other helminths intermittently shed by rodents. For instance, salmonellosis is the cause of 25% of all diarrhoea cases worldwide. Leptospirosis affects more than one million people annually and cause more deaths than Ebola for instance.
We advocate that integrating a Village Level Ecologically Based Rodent Management (vEBRM) approach with the activities of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) helps improve nutrition, food safety and public health in the villages in Africa and Asia. vEBRM requires awareness and understanding of rodent habits and a change in people’s behaviour, as people often create the ideal conditions for rodents to multiply. Hence, vEBRM does not seek to just exterminate the rodents, but to control their access to food, their habitats, and movements and to make use of natural enemies.
Here are three important aspects:
Aspect 1: Rodents damage and contaminate food. They are a major cause of human diseases through a multitude of transmission pathways and infect livestock as well. They may attack people, especially children and the elderly. They consume food stores, damage property and some rodents will spread bad smells and create annoying noise.
Aspect 2: Inadequate waste disposal, grain and cattle feed storage methods aid the proliferation of rodent populations in villages thereby heightening public health issues.
Aspect 3: One cannot do this alone: like community WASH, vEBRM needs a systematic collective effort.
Here are the 10 Key Rules in vEBRM:
- Communities should first appreciate the fact that rodents are a problem for both agriculture and public health, and that it is possible to reduce rodent populations to close to zero.
- Collaborative, community-based participation is imperative at all stages of household and community-level sanitary and hygienic activities and in the introduction of proper storage and house construction to create a healthy village free of rodents. Adequate cleaning, trash removal and rodent-proof trash containers are necessary.
- Establish robust community awareness campaigns to achieve people’s behavioural changes towards rodents, food and grain storage methods and household and community-level waste disposal so that rodents are denied access to food and harbourage.
- Ensure regular inspection of houses, storage areas and gardens. Immediately repair openings where rodents passthrough and take shelter, such as fencing and stone-bunds. When observed, immediately remove any harbourage, rat runways, climbing spots, etc. It is important to understand that rodents are neo-phobic and learn the locations of new objects, food sources and escape routes very quickly.
- Traditional brooming is a special point of attention: especially hard brooms in rodent infested households have the potential to spread rodent-associated RNA viruses and bacteria by contaminated aerosols and arthropod vectors. Hence:
- Ensure minimal dust blows while sweeping using water and soft brooms.
- Use cloth or facemask to cover the mouth and nose.
- Construct storage houses and materials in such a way that it is impossible for rodents to enter (Fig. 3). Ensure that roofs, doors, and windows are fit tightly, and gaps and flaws are avoided. When detected, gaps and flaws should be sealed immediately with rodent-proof material. Interrupters may also be used.
- Make sure some of the most sensitive household items are protected from rodents:
- Store food, grain, drinking water, household utensils in rodent-proof containers and cabinets to avoid persistent household-level re-infestations.
- Store children/infant food, water and feeding utensils (such as plastic infant/children feeding bottles) in safe containers at all times.
- Encourage keeping domestic cats (and dogs) at household level (see Fig. 1) and discourage chasing and prosecution of natural predators of rodents (such as birds of prey, wild cats, mongoose, snakes).
- If after all these measures rodent infestation persists: use mechanical killing methods (local and commercial traps), flood rodent burrows, and use proven bio–rodenticides (ecologically sustainable rodenticides originated from plant materials) or selected chemical rodenticides to manage rodent populations. Avoid using chemical rodenticides that have no user application information and production and expiry dates.
- Establish and implement strict village (or neighbourhood) bylaws and rules to ensure household and neighbourhood sanitation and hygiene. Use a record-keeping system that lets the community know who are not respecting the bylaws, who are the offenders. Besides, develop and implement community strategy for a solid waste disposal system (including recycling). Additionally, introduce mandatory “one pit waste each, per household and per village” rule in the village bylaws. Organize groups and committees that create awareness about community sanitation and hygiene and are responsible for enforcing the bylaws. Assign responsible bodies for trash removal and maintenance of communal trash containers and trash dumping areas (pits).
Photo credit: Meta Meta Research “Cats, one of the natural predators to control rodent populations”