DIARY: Fear of rats?

A funny thing occurred yesterday. We were doing natural movement circuits in the park and everyone was standing on the grass having a good time with their shoes off so we could do the basic drills correctly.

An elderly lady suddenly approaches me with a look of concern on her face that suggested I had just led a group of people into a mine-field. She warned me sternly that being barefoot in the park was dangerous due to the local rat population which carries Weil’s disease (Leptospirosis), a bacterial infection carried in the urine of animals. According to the concerned lady, this disease has been found in the rats in Marlay Park and she worried that any type of wound on our feet could expose us to the bacteria and that we would have “only 10 minutes to get the hospital in such a case.” She added the punch-line: “I’m a medic, I know.” Jason closed the conversation: “Ok, we appreciate the advice, thank you.”

I relayed the news to the group and finished with the words “so, any fear in movement now?” No one reached for their shoes or socks (as the lady had pointedly told me “even a thin layer of sock will do, just not bare foot”) and Philip commented: “I run here bare foot every week”.

After this some runners continued with their shoes for parts of the exercise while some, like Amidou and I, stayed barefoot for the entirety of the 90 minutes all around the park. Were we right to do so?


First, let’s have a look at the disease. I’ve never heard of any disease that’ll drop a healthy human being in 10 minutes in Ireland, certainly not one you could pick up easily in a park, so I was sceptical although I accepted I could be simply ill-informed.

Symptoms in humans appear after 4-14 days if you believe Wikipedia, not ten minutes, and in some people hardly any symptoms occur at all. Very serious cases can eventually, down the line, lead to renal and liver failure and potential cardiovascular problems but this is the case with almost all bacterial infections. Susceptible genetics or poor lifestyle can led to modern humans with an immune system that is not adequately equipped to respond sufficiently well to mundane bacterial infections. Currently, the infection is fully treatable with antibiotics (although, at the rate we use it know, most bacterial strands will eventually be immune and leave us in a new, more dangerous era, of medicine).

90% of cases are mild and it is unknown why some people develop the more severe, sometimes fatal, symptoms but my guess is that it comes down to an immune system compromised by an existing serious condition or by a modern lifestyle and poor diet. The UK had 3 deaths from the disease in 2009. Most people reported there recovered within a week on antibiotics.

Fear mongering

Everywhere we go now we get bombarded with messages of fear about crime, the economy, injury or not being adequate enough in one way or another. There’s little difference between Tony Riddle’s example of yelling “don’t do that” to a kid trying to play around outside and what we experienced yesterday. Well meaning as the lady medic might have been, the type of response she had was counterproductive in my view given the obviously low risks of this disease. Most infectious diseases can be fatal for certain people in certain circumstances but we do not go around gloved living in constant fear for that reason.

The “fear of bare feet” is reaching stupefying levels considering how little concern we are showing for all the bare hands (much more likely disease carriers after all). There is a line where risks are just reckless and stupid but yesterday’s barefoot session in Marlay Park was hardly one of them. We must all decide for ourselves whether we want to live in a state of fear-mongering and anxiety, like the well-meaning if slightly intrusive lady yesterday, or are happy to accept that to live is to risk. Every breath you take can, after all, be your last, but do you fear it? I don’t…

* For an example of unnecessary risk: during the 2005 “Cyclone Gudrun” in Denmark which killed 22 and hit windspeeds of 126km/h, I left my dormitory, against the vocal protests of some hall mates, to go for a walk in it, because “I need to see how it felt”. With a few flying flag-stones and nearly being blown back from the water front, this could potentially have gone very badly but it remains a fond experience of mine as, at the time, I needed to improve my understanding of the natural forces. This of course coincided with the time in a man’s life where taking unnecessary, generally fool-hardy and dangerous risks, were seen as great strategies to prove one’s bravery. If women' are more likely to pick superficially brave men, then this type of behaviour is perfectly understandable from an evolutionary perspective. Of ocurse, the moral of the story may really be that the man who willingly puts himself in danger is always safer than the man who unwillingly finds himself in danger.