Public Health Reports Several Cases of Flea-Borne Typhus

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) is reminding residents of the Santa Monica Mountains to take action to protect themselves and their pets from flea-borne typhus by using flea control products on pets and avoiding wild or stray animals.

Typhus, a bacterial disease carried by fleas, ticks, and some types of mite, is endemic in Los Angeles County. In recent years the average number of reported cases has doubled to nearly 60 cases per year. There have been 63 cases of typhus reported so far this year, countywide. The DPH reports that the agency is currently working with the city of Los Angeles to implement environmental safety measures to reduce the spread of the disease.

“Flea-borne typhus is a disease that infected fleas can spread to humans,” a press release from the DPH states. “Bacteria (Rickettsia typhi and R. felis) found in infected fleas and their feces, cause typhus. Fleas can come from many types of animals including cats, rats, and opossums. Although pets and animals do not get sick from typhus, typhus can cause high fever, chills, headache, and rash in people.” It can take as long as two weeks after exposure for symptoms to appear.

Typhus is not transmitted person-by-person, but epidemics of the disease spread by fleas and lice were deadly before antibiotics were developed. Fatalities are now rare, provided the illness is diagnosed and promptly treated with antibiotics, but typhus is still considered a serious illness.

“Although typhus normally occurs throughout L.A. County, we are observing several cases in the downtown Los Angeles area,” said Muntu Davis, MD, MPH, Los Angeles County Health Officer. “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.”

The DPH recommends the following tips to help prevent typhus:

  • Practice safe flea control
  • Use flea control products on your pets.
  • When outside, wear pants tucked into socks or boots. Spray insect repellent with DEET on socks and pant cuffs.
  • Avoid being near wild or stray animals
  • Never feed or touch wild animals, especially opossums, rats, stray, or feral cats.
  • Store your trash in cans with secure lids to avoid attracting animals.
  • Get rid of places where rats and stray animals sleep, hide, or find food, like crawl spaces, attics, or under decks. Protect yourself by wearing gloves and a mask when cleaning these areas. Wash your hands when you’re finished.

Sealing up gaps and holes to exclude rodents from buildings, making sure garbage cans are secure and gardens don’t have attractants like fallen fruit or uneaten food in outdoor kitchen areas, can greatly reduce the chance of coming into contact with typhus carriers. Indoors, eliminating rugs and carpets, frequent vacuuming, and routinely checking pets for fleas and ticks can help prevent problems without requiring insecticide use.

Public Health is partnering with the City of Los Angeles and community partners to continue surveillance activities, to interview and treat those affected and to reduce the environmental risk for this disease. For rodent complaints in the City of Los Angeles, call 3-1-1. For other areas, call L.A. County 2-1-1.

For more information regarding flea-borne typhus, visit the public health website or call 2-1-1.

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