Fleas in San Gabriel, CA (and other locations) can cause a dangerous infection that you need to understand so you can protect yourself and others.
Note: I’m continuing to expand this article when I have time, and I’ll add new blog entries which you can find by clicking on the Typhus category on the side of this page, or this link.
My wife became very sick with what was diagnosed to be Murine Typhus. This Typhus is caused by fleas infecting the dirt (typically fleas from opossums, cats and rats).
Any one of us can be infected by doing something as simple as touching the ground with a paper-cut on your finger. Or, you could get dirt on your finger and touch the corner of your eye. We think my wife was infected while planting a flowering vine in our backyard garden. Or maybe it happened when she picked up the garden hose to water a plant.
She’s recovering, and will recover fully. Hospital stays never seem to occur without some side effects, so while the Typhus is under control, her arm is painful from the IV and she’s getting that checked again soon.
Nearly anybody in San Gabriel & Pasadena can get Murine Typhus, especially if you see any of those three creatures. The infectious-disease doctor said he hadn’t seen many cases in Pasadena but he expected there are more occurrences in the (wild) hills of Pasadena, Altadena, La Cañada / Flintridge, etc.
In our backyard, we’ve seen opossum, rodents, and a few wandering cats. Sure, there are hummingbirds, blue jays, mockingbirds, other songbirds, squirrels, the odd raccoon, and who knows what other creatures I’m forgetting. So far, the peacocks haven’t landed. But —– the fleas that cause Murine Typhus come from, again, opossums, cats and rats.
This infection is rare in the Pasadena, CA area. However, now it doesn’t seem very rare in our San Gabriel, CA neighborhood. We were lucky to find a doctor who was aware of Typhus and my wife will have no permanent damage … as long as her IV arm heals …
Murine Typhus can lead to permanent organ damage in humans, along with internal bleeding.
Some people infected with Typhus become disoriented and cannot understand where they are at a particular moment. That goes away after the treatment succeeds.
Other Sources of Information
Center for Disease Control (CDC)
Quote from the CDC fact sheet https://www.cdc.gov/typhus/murine/index.html :
Cat fleas found on domestic cats and opossums have been associated with cases of murine typhus in the United States. Most cases of murine typhus in the United States are reported in people from California, Hawaii, and Texas.
LA Times (1997)
An news paper article from 1997: http://articles.latimes.com/1997/jul/19/local/me-14302
“The opossums carry lots of fleas. Sometimes they carry 200 fleas on them–or more,” she said.
“We tell homeowners to pick up fruit if you have fruit trees…”
“The area included in the current advisory includes the foothill cities of Pasadena, South Pasadena, Monrovia, Altadena, Glendale, and a hilly swath of Los Angeles covering Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz, Mt. Washington and Eagle Rock.”
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Fever and chills
- Body aches and muscle pain (e.g. neck & back)
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach pain
- Rash (typically occurs around day 5 of illness)
From our experience, research, and doctor comments, some people experience different sets of those symptoms.
What Can You Do To Protect Yourself?
First of all, stop petting the opossums. I know they’re cute and all that, especially at night with their ghostly white faced peering out at you … (kidding).
Seriously though, if you’ve seen any of the 3 animals already mentioned (opossum, rats, cats) roaming around your yard then I believe you need to ensure you don’t have visiting fleas. Check out my other article with recommendations and tips on how to do that.
Some of this is simple awareness. If you get sick with symptoms (see above), especially if your doctor thinks might be meningitis, then make sure they also test you for Typhus. My understanding is that they can identify (or rule out) both bacterial and viral meningitis rather quickly (it was same-day for us, via a spinal tap / lumbar puncture), but since my wife didn’t have all the symptoms for Typhus, they sent us home with pain medications (the first visit).
And, back to the previous point. Beware of flea carrying ‘visitors’. We let the opossum family traipse through the back yard for a couple years thinking they weren’t really hurting anything. Maybe they’re innocent. Maybe it was a dirty rat, , y’see, or the cat. Me? I’ll be investigating ways to ensure our ghost-faced “neighbor” stops passing through our yard on his nightly foraging excursions. And – working to eradicate the fleas.
Our Sequence of Events
Here’s the order of events that happened to my wife:
- Home sick from work: Increasing pain in her head, neck & back …
- Doctor-on-Demand video conference: She thought it might be meningitis …
- Pasadena Urgent Care visit: They thought it might be meningitis …
- First visit to the Emergency Room: Tested for meningitis, including a spinal tap (aka lumbar puncture). This came back “negative” (aka “clear”) but it’s a scary time sitting in a noisy ER room wondering if you have a deadly inflammation of your spinal column. Sent home with medication for the pain. (No mention of Typhus.)
- Second visit to the Emergency Room: We’re going to do a “blood patch” as a followup to the spinal tap just in case that’s causing your increased headaches. No, we didn’t – a smart doctor realized her blood tests were indicating inflammation due to an infection. She was admitted to the hospital for 5 days …
- Released from the hospital after 5 long days & nights (they wake you every 3 hours to check vitals, and they draw blood every morning to test for organ failure et. al):
- Pain was nearly gone thanks to excellent doctors & nurses, and of course doxycycline. She was able to walk again, slowly but her legs were swollen for days.
- Her arm is slowly recovering from injuries due to the emergency room Intravenous Line (IV) wound taking longer to heal. Doctors predict her arm will be very sore for 1-2 weeks. Hopefully no complications …
- A followup doctor visit confirmed that she’s on the mend.
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