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Los Angeles Hit With Flea-Borne Typhus Outbreak, Some Parts At Epidemic Levels

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Flea-borne typhus can be transmitted to people from infected fleas and their feces. The infection often occurs when the infected flea feces is rubbed onto the eyes or onto scrapes and cuts.   ( Wikimedia Commons )

Downtown Los Angeles has been hit with an outbreak of flea-borne typhus, Pasadena being the hardest hit.

What is flea-borne typhus and how can it be prevented?

Flea-Borne Typhus In Los Angeles County

Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health announced this week that it is investigating an outbreak of flea-borne typhus illnesses in the county, with some areas already having an unusually high number of cases. In particular, Long Beach, California, has already doubled its typical annual infections with 12 cases so far in 2018, while the city of Pasadena appears to be the hardest hit with 20 cases already recorded, mostly in the last two months alone. Pasadena typically has only five recorded cases in a year.

The rest of the county has a total of nine infections so far, which is already enough to have it considered as an outbreak. Meanwhile, health authorities in Pasadena describe the situation as reaching “epidemic levels.”

Animal Fleas And Inhumane Conditions

According to health officials, the main culprit for the infections are fleas from both domestic and wild animals. Typhus-infected fleas often come from animals such as cats, opossums, and rats, but they do not get sick from it. However, people may get infected and fall ill when they are bitten by an infected flea or when the flea’s infected feces is rubbed into the eyes or into cuts and scrapes in the skin.

Experts note that the true problem behind the illnesses is actually the poor conditions in which the people move and live in. In fact, all the people who got infected were said to have a history of living or working in downtown Los Angeles where the homeless population is expanding.

“Places where there is an accumulation of trash that attract wild animals like feral cats, rats and opossums that may carry an infected flea may increase the risk of exposure,” notes the county Department of Public Health.

“We encourage pet owners to practice safe flea control and encourage all cities in the county to ensure maintenance of their trash clean-up and rodent control activities,” added Los Angeles County Health Officer Muntu Davis, MD, MPH.

Flea-Borne Typhus

Flea-borne typhus is a bacterial disease caused by Rickettsia typhi and Rickettsia felis. Cases of flea-borne typhus are recorded worldwide, but tropical and coastal locations are more at risk of infections. In the United States, Texas, Hawaii, and California have the most cases each year, with the illness being considered as endemic or always present in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

Most cases of flea-borne typhus go undetected and go away on their own, but some people may experience fever, chills, headache, and muscle ache within 6 to 14 days after the contact or bite. Some may even develop rashes that begin at the chest and spread to the sides and back. Death from the illness is rare at just 2 to 4 percent worldwide in places where treatment is unavailable, but typically it is treated with antibiotics, and recovery is expected within just a few days.

Avoiding Fleas

Avoiding direct contact with fleas by discouraging rats, opossums, cats, and other wild animals from visiting the home are important in preventing flea-borne typhus. This can be done by keeping the area around the home clean, not leaving food outside, and by keeping cats indoors.

It’s also important to have good flea control practices such as using insect repellents with DEET, wearing proper clothing when outside, avoiding wild animals, keeping garbage can lids properly secure to avoid wild animals from rummaging through it, and getting rid of places where rats or other wild animals may sleep or burrow.

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