Rats have played an important role in the history of the marine industry for more than a thousand years. The black rat was first brought to the British Isles by Roman ships more than 1,600 years ago. The brown rat, also known as the wharf rat, may be found on all continents except Antarctica, which is partly due to the fact that it was introduced there by ships and boats during the early days of the twentieth century. A substantial health hazard is posed by rats, who are known to spread a wide range of diseases. Murine typhus and salmonellosis are only a few of the illnesses that they may spread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the bubonic plague was first introduced to the United States by cargo ships carrying rats in the early 1900s, resulting in outbreaks in multiple ports along the United States’ West Coast and two epidemics that killed hundreds of people in San Francisco. In the 1920s, another plague epidemic hit Los Angeles, this time caused by mice, and killed hundreds of people.

When a survey of ships berthed in New York’s harbour revealed that more than half of them were infested with rats at the same time the plague outbreak reached Los Angeles, the researchers were shocked. Following these and other instances, there was widespread concern about a worldwide pandemic caused by rats onboard ships, which was spreading horrific sicknesses from port to port and killing millions of people. As a consequence, the use of fumigating chemicals as well as increased inspections by public health officials became regular practise. Rat guards were also often used aboard commercial ships as a vermin-control tool to keep rats at bay. A “shield” made of metal was attached to the mooring line to prevent rats from jumping over the line and onto or off the vessel. Following a series of plague outbreaks in the United States, numerous ports began ordering ships docked at their facilities to install rat guards, despite the fact that the federal government had not compelled their use.

Only in 1951, when the World Health Organization (WHO) released the first set of International Sanitary Regulations (ISR), did legal techniques to prevent the spread of rats on board oceangoing vessels become available. For the first time in history, ships about to embark on international voyages were issued a Deratting Certificate. Following successful completion of a comprehensive health examination by government personnel, the certificate was valid for six months and had to be renewed. Health inspectors may check ships arriving from foreign ports and provide them with a fresh Deratting Certificate, hold them and force them to finish a deratting/fumigation procedure, or quarantine them and deny them entry until they have been cleared entirely by health inspectors. Only a few of countries were required to comply with the new sanitary requirements, and even then, only insofar as they chose to follow the World Health Organization’s ISR principles. Due to the WHO’s limited capacity to implement the restrictions that it had established, this resulted.

First and foremost, as a signatory to the ISR, the USPHS was responsible for keeping a close eye out for rat infestations on ships entering US ports. The fumigation of ships with rat infestations was performed when necessary, and certificates were awarded to those who passed deratting inspections in 18 major and more than 100 lesser American ports as necessary. Later, in the 1980s, the government’s funding for inspections was substantially decreased. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will no longer undertake regular deratting inspections on ships calling at American ports, and boats arriving from other nations will no longer be needed to have a valid Deratting Certificate in order to enter the country.

According to the National Institute of Health, a study conducted in 2005 found that “CDC efforts no longer adequately protect the United States population from microbial threats.” An revised International Health Regulations document, the Ship Sanitation Certificate, was issued in 2007 to replace the Derating Certificate as part of the updated International Health Regulations document. With little delay, our government enacted legislation that continues its long-standing policy of not requiring foreign ships visiting at our ports to have a valid health certificate on board them. Some nations, such as Brazil, New Zealand, and Singapore, need a Ship Sanitation Certificate, while other countries, such as the United States, do not require one. Despite the fact that cruise ships are frequently subjected to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ship sanitation inspections, the agency has no plans to do the same for foreign cargo ships that regularly dock in the United States. According to reports, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that health screenings for thousands of ships landing at our ports are no longer essential in these high-risk times of deadly illnesses and bioterrorism threats.

According to some estimates, a modern-day plague would kill about 2.5 billion people, the same number of individuals who died during the Black Death outbreak in the Middle Ages — nearly one in every three Americans may perish. So I feel it is time for our government to stop playing “Russian roulette” with the public’s safety and to review its stance on cargo vessel health inspections. All foreign ships entering our waters, in my opinion, should be required to obtain a valid Ship Sanitation Certificate, and all cargo ships arriving in the United States should be required to undergo a health check by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before docking at an American port. It is my opinion that to expect less would be to jeopardise the safety of the American people.

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