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Flea-Borne Typhus on Rise in OC

Twenty-seven people have contracted the illness this year in Orange County. It can cause severe headaches, high fevers and confusion, and may require hospitalization.

Health officials in Orange County are urging residents to help combat flea-borne typhus from latching onto pets and humans.

Flea-borne typhus, also known as endemic typhus and murine typhus, is a disease primarily transmitted to humans by feral cats, opossums and raccoons. According to a report from the Orange County Health Care Agency, 27 human cases of the disease have been reported this year, up from last year's 10 cases.

"The number of human cases since 2007 do seem to be rising steadily," Jared Dever, spokesman for the Orange County Vector Control District, said. "The infected fleas come in contact with the domestic animals and they can pick up these fleas and transmit them to humans."

Some people infected with flea-borne typhus will experience symptoms including a severe headache, a sustained high fever, body aches, weakness, confusion and a rash on the chest, back, arms and/or legs.

The reason behind the increase in flea-borne typhus is still unclear, but Dever said the spike in public awareness has resulted in better testing for and reporting of the disease.

When a case surfaces, the OCVCD will do a survey of backyard wildlife to determine the number of fleas found on those animals and a survey of other potential risk factors in a community surrounding a victim.

"Flea-borne typhus diagnosis requires that an initial blood test be performed while the patient is showing symptoms and illness,” Dever explained. "And a second blood test be conducted after symptoms have subsided to detect for the presence of antibodies to the bacteria that causes flea-borne typhus."

Unlike West Nile Virus, there is a cure for flea-borne typhus and Dever says, "It's entirely treatable and preventable."

To keep flea-borne typhus away from your home and pets, the county health department recommends the following tips:

  • Consult your veterinarian regarding safe flea control medications for your pets which can break the bridge of transmission between pets and humans
  • Keep your home and yard in good repair by removing overgrown vegetation and debris where rodents, opossums, and feral (wild) cats may hide
  • Keep screens on crawl space covers and vents in good repair 
  • Avoid contact with animals that carry fleas, and do not attempt to capture and relocate these animals to other areas
  • Eliminate all food and water sources around your home, including open trash cans, fallen fruit around the yard, pet food and bird feeders
  • When cleaning nesting areas of rats and opossums, spray area with disinfectant, and wear protective clothing and equipment (i.e., mask, goggles, gloves)
  • When treating your yard or animal harborage areas with insecticides, only use products labeled for flea control and follow all directions carefully

For more information about flea-borne typhus, visit the Orange County Vector Control District at ocvcd.org.

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