Health Officials: Wildlife, Especially Feral Cats and Opossums, Driving Pasadena's Typhus Spike

Published : Monday, October 8, 2018 | 5:06 AM

Keeping feral cats and opossums out of yards and away from people is the key to reining in a significant increase in cases of Typhus, health officials said. Images: Feral cat, opossum courtesy Pasadena Humane Society. At left, image of carriers flea X Cheopis, courtesy Centers for Disease Control

Urban wildlife is behind the epidemic-level spread of typhus reported in Pasadena, and keeping feral cats and opossums out of yards and away from people is the key to reining in the serious disease, health officials said.

At least 20 people in Pasadena have come down with murine typhus this year, Pasadena interim spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said.

“Which is well above the expected to one to five cases per year,” she said. “That’s a significant increase and a cause for concern. So that’s why we want to get the information out right away for people just to take some simple precautions to prevent the spread, to prevent getting this.”

Most people who contract the bacterial infection recover, but some cases can be severe, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Without medical intervention, severe cases can lead to organ damage.

Downtown Los Angeles has also seen an increase in the illness this year. While there’s no vaccine to prevent typhus, it’s treatable.

“Some of the symptoms may mimic other things,” Derderian said. “So definitely if you experience high fever, chills, headache, rash, make sure that you get to a doctor right away because it can be treated with antibiotics. But people may also think maybe they have flu or other things, so don’t wait.”

The disease is primarily spread by fleas that feed on animals and people. And while many forms of wildlife can carry the bacteria that causes typhus, feral cats and opossums are especially prone to harboring infected fleas, San Gabriel Valley Mosquito & Vector Control District spokesman Levi Sun said.

“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why we may get the increase, but it’s most likely because we are seeing perhaps more feral cats, opossums and other wild animals,” he said.

Typhus is endemic, meaning it’s pretty much always present in Southern California’s urban environments, according to Sun. “It’s just occasionally, you will see cases of typhus moved from fleas into the human population.”

“It’s always been here, much like West Nile virus. It’s in the background and we don’t always hear much about it,” he said. “In fact, most people aren’t aware that the bubonic plague is still in California, but it’s a minimal level that we no longer consider that an issue.”

Leaving food out for feral cats or other wildlife can help draw the disease-carrying fleas close to people, officials warned.

“Don’t provide food or water,” Derderian said. “A lot of people feel sorry for stray animals, but that just attracts the infected fleas and potentially spread this disease.”

Pets should be given flea treatments, and it’s important to clear yards of debris that can provide hiding places for animals, authorities said.

“Once you remove safe harborage for these animals, you create the barrier between wildlife and humans,” Sun said.

Pasadena Public Health Department Director Michael Johnson said officials are gathering all the information they can.

“For every case we do a comprehensive patient history and evaluate for common risks or exposures,” he explained.

“We know Pasadena has naturally existing typhus so we typically monitor for hot spots or clusters of cases and look for areas of high risk like unkempt yards, and especially homes where people are feeding pets or wildlife in their backyards,” Johnson said.

“We will also target high-risk areas with mailers and information materials to notify them of their risk,” he added.

Unlike stray dogs, officials do not round up cats roaming the streets, Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA Senior Vice President Elizabeth Richer Campo said.

“There is a legal definition of a dog being stray. With cats, there’s no real definition of a cat being stray, so a cat has the right to wander throughout the community, so we don’t know who’s owned and who’s not owned,” she said.

Although the Humane Society does take note of people feeding feral colonies, Campos said. Officials explain to them that typhus is posing a threat, and if they cannot be dissuaded from feeding the animals, they can add a flea treatment additive to the food.

“We always tell people do not feed the wildlife. They are perfectly equipped to find their meals in our environment, and there is no need for humans to intervene in that,” she said.

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