Rats, fleas, and garbage caused a typhus outbreak in Los Angeles

Typhus is a bacterial infection which is spread by lice, chiggers, and fleas. Usually, those pests find a home on rats. The rats in most cases have a population boom because of excessive garbage. And the disease infects people who come in contact with the rats. That’s what is driving the disease in Los Angeles where an outbreak has been traced to homeless encampments. From USA Today:

Government officials in Los Angeles are considering ripping out carpets in city buildings amid a typhus outbreak that has infected workers.

The disease is typically caused by infected fleas and their feces. It can also be spread by rats, cats and opossums, according to health officials. Downtown Los Angeles has been battling an outbreak since October that was linked to homeless street encampments, officials said.

An NBC News report last year described the conditions in downtown LA where the rats are flourishing:

Wholesale fish distributors, produce warehouses and homeless encampments line Ceres Avenue downtown, creating perfect conditions for rats.

Uneaten food is dumped on the street — a salad platter was recently splattered on the asphalt — and discarded clothing piles up only to be swirled into rats’ nests…

City officials recently declared downtown’s skid row — roughly 54 square blocks where more than 4,000 homeless congregate — a “typhus zone.”

All of this was preventable if the city had simply responded to calls about trash left by the homeless but according to a KNBC report, calls to clean up the mess were often ignored:

People who work in the downtown and Skid Row areas say they’ve complained constantly to the city’s 311 number to pick up piles of trash but the calls often go unaswered.

Records obtained by the I-Team show the Department of Sanitation received more than 2,200 calls to 311 over a two-year period to pick up trash near homeless encampments but failed to respond to more than half of those calls.

The fleas don’t only go after the homeless but anyone unfortunate enough to be in the typhus zone downtown. One LA City worker at City Hall named Elizabeth Greenwood thought she’d caught a bad strain of flu and went to the doctor. A blood test revealed she’d contracted typhus. From KTLA:

“I was in shock. Who thinks of Typhus?” Greenwood said. “I thought of Typhus as something I read about in history books.”

She said she felt so sick, she thought she was going to die.

“It is terrifying to me that going from my car, up an elevator to my office, I can get this disease from a flea bite,” Greenwood said.

Greenwood said she refuses to return to work until all of City Hall East is fumigated.

Typhus has historically been a very deadly disease but which is now relatively rare. For the first decade of the 21st century, the annual number of confirmed cases in California hovered in the teens. But the numbers have been creeping up since 2010 and last year hit a new high of around 150 confirmed and probable cases. Nearly all of the additional cases last year arose in Los Angeles County, with another 20 found in Orange County. No other county in the state reported more than two cases.

Typhus is not transmittable from one person to another, so there’s no chance of it spreading because someone gets infected. Getting rid of the disease should be as simple as cleaning up the trash that allows rats to thrive and maybe killing off the rat population. (The rats can become a food source for feral cats which also carry the infected fleas.) KTLA reports a clean up is now underway:

On Thursday, city workers were seen power-washing the sidewalk outside City Hall, cleaning up piles of trash and filling in rat burrows in the surrounding area.

It’s a start but dealing with the human element of the problem in skid row is something the city doesn’t seem prepared to do.