Typhus on the comeback: how to minimize your risk

Travis County, Texas, recently had a death due to typhus, last year typhus showed up in the Lower Valley area.  Typhus is one of those “diseases” that has not been prevalent for many years, but like everything else it is making a comeback.

Typhus is a bacterial disease that can be spread by lice or fleas; fleas (rat fleas & cat fleas) are often the common vector. Typhus is caused by one of two types of bacteria- Rickettsia typhi or Rickettsia prowaze-kii. The type of typhus contracted depends upon the type of bacteria. R. typhi causes murine (also known as en-demic) typhus. It often occurs in the summer through fall and is rarely deadly. Risk factors include exposure to rat fleas, rat feces or exposure to various animals such as cats, rats, skunks, raccoons or opossums. Symptoms of murine typhus include abdominal pain, backache, diarrhea, head-ache, joint and muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, a high fever (105-106 F) and a dull red rash that begins on the torso and spreads.

R. prowazekii causes epidemic typhus. Lice and fleas of flying squirrels spread this bacterium. Symptoms of epidemic typhus include chills, cough, delirium, high fever (104 F), joint pain, light sensitivity, severe headache, severe muscle pain, and a rash that starts on the torso and spreads out.

People get murine typhus from of an infected flea. Most fleas defecate while feeding, so the bacteria can enter the body through the bite wound or by the area being scratched. You may also get murine typhus by inhaling fecal material infected with the bacteria.

Treatment of typhus generally involves antibiotics. Epidemic typhus may need intravenous fluids and oxygen as well. If someone suspects that they have typhus, they should see a physician as soon as possible.

Of course, to reduce the chance of having flea-carrying organisms around, encourage the following:

1. Do not leave pet food out overnight.

2. Make sure all garbage cans have tight fitting lids.

3. Keep fire wood and other items off the ground.

4. Keep yard maintained.

5. Inspect the outside of the home and seal any areas where rodents may enter (use stainless steel mesh screening or flashing).

6. Treat pets with a monthly flea treatment (see veterinarian for recommendations).

7. Treat any indoor & outdoor flea infestations promptly.

By Wizzie Brown, program specialist at Texas AgriLife Extension Service

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