The rat population around the two Occupy D.C. camps at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza has “exploded”since protesters began their vigil in October, according to Mohammad N. Akhter, the director of the District’s Department of Health.

Akhter said in an interview Monday that city health inspectors have seen rats running openly through both camps and spotted numerous new burrows and nests underneath hay-stuffed pallets occupiers are using for beds. Both campsites had working kitchens for weeks until last week, but protesters at McPherson Square voluntarily closed down theirs after health inspectors pointed out unsanitary conditions during an informal monitoring visit.

Akhter said his concerns about the health and safety at the camps prompted him to order a city-wide review of conditions there, including input from health inspectors, mental health professionals, experts on the homeless and others. He is reviewing their findings this week.

“I’m very supportive of their rights and ability to demonstrate but I have concerns about their personal safety,” Akhter said.

The National Park Service has official jurisdiction over the two camps and will make the final decision whether to evict protesters. But Akhter said he will advise the federal government to close the camps if sanitation conditions warrant doing so. He also said he would unilaterally move to evacuate the camps if there were a blizzard or severe winter storm.

Akhter, who is originally from Pakistan and has worked for the District government for over 20 years, said that the situation in the two parks is reminiscent of refu­gee camps he has toured overseas in the Middle East and Africa during his public health career. He said he fears disaster could strike during a severe winter storm.

“Going down to these camps, it’s no different than refu­gee camps,” Akhter said. “People are living in very primitive conditions and they’re doing it by choice. They are very brave and thoughtful people, but my concern is that they should also take care of themselves. When the weather goes bad suddenly we’re watching a tragedy unfold in the middle of Washington, D.C. ”

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Occupiers’ new foe: Cold weather

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