Rat-borne disease suspected in foreign worker’s death

Illegal makeshift structure he lived in being investigated for health, safety issues

Employers using an illegal makeshift structure (above) off Petain Road in Little India to house their workers have been asked to move them out after a Bangladeshi worker who lived there died, possibly due to a rat-borne disease earlier this month.
Employers using an illegal makeshift structure (above) off Petain Road in Little India to house their workers have been asked to move them out after a Bangladeshi worker who lived there died, possibly due to a rat-borne disease earlier this month. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - An order has been issued for an unauthorised structure housing foreign workers in Little India to be demolished. 

This follows the death of a worker from a suspected rat-transmitted disease – the first time someone has been known to die from this here in a decade.

The makeshift structure, with walls and a roof of corrugated metal, sits at the end of a row of houses on Marne Road, off Petain Road.

The premises came under investigation after the worker’s death on July 11.

A joint statement from six government agencies said the worker was running a fever, vomited and had abdominal pain on July 4. 

  • What is leptospirosis?

  • Leptospirosis, a disease spread from rats or other animals to humans, usually surfaces in rural and slum areas, or where there is contaminated flood water.

    Its symptoms are flu-like – fever, headaches, chills, severe muscle pain and reddened eyes.

    As the infection is bacterial, it is usually treated with antibiotics.

    Infection usually occurs when water or soil contaminated with the urine, excreta or tissues of infected animals enters a wound or the eye.

    The disease can be caught by consuming contaminated food or water, but it cannot be spread from person to person by casual contact.

    Since 2007, there have been between 26 and 64 reported cases a year here, a rate considered low.

    In about half the cases, the victims were infected overseas. Almost all were isolated cases.

    As leptospirosis is classified as an “occupational” disease, doctors and employers must report cases they come across to the Manpower Ministry.

    The Health Ministry’s annual report on communicable diseases says the last-known deaths from leptospirosis here took place a decade ago, when two people died. 

Admitted to Tan Tock Seng Hospital on July 9, he died two days later. 

The Chinese evening daily Lianhe Wanbao reported that he was aged 27 and was from Bangladesh.

The results of tests suggested that he had contracted leptospirosis, a bacterial infection spread from rats to humans which last killed people here in 2002.

Although forensic investigations are ongoing, The Straits Times understands that – contrary to media reports – he is unlikely to have caught it from a rat bite.

The disease is usually spread by contact with contaminated water or soil. 

The statement from the government agencies said the man’s co-workers, housemates and neighbours have not caught the disease. 

The agencies which issued the statement were the National Environment Agency (NEA), the ministries of Health and Manpower, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), the Building & Construction Authority (BCA) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

Investigations by the first four agencies found the victim’s living quarters to have been cramped, unkempt and littered with rat droppings. 

Fire safety rules were also broken.

The Straits Times understands that employers had been renting the space to house their workers.

MOM declined to name them. 

Now that the place has been found unfit as a living space, these employers have been told to move their workers out.

That order has been complied with and the place is now empty and locked – but not for much longer. 

Last Wednesday, BCA served a demolition order on the owner of the plot. Yesterday, speaking to The Straits Times, it confirmed that the structure was unauthorised.

It said that the owner has been given one month, until Aug 18, to demolish the structure.

The URA is checking whether the structure infringes planning guidelines and, if that is the case, may take action.

The NEA said the occupier of the illegal structure and the owner of the house next door have been fined for rodent infestation. The amount of the fine is not known. 

The MOM and SCDF are also taking enforcement action, but no details are available.

Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, it is an offence to house foreign workers in unacceptable accommodation. 

Those found guilty may be fined up to $5,000, jailed up to six months, or both fined and jailed.

Meanwhile, the NEA has engaged a contractor to place rat traps around the area and will step up rat-control measures in the area.

It will also remind residents and shops in the neighbourhood to ensure that food is kept properly covered at all times, to dispose of food waste properly and to keep their premises clutter-free.