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L.A. County Reports First Deaths from Flea-borne Typhus in Decades

Los Angeles County recorded the first deaths from flea-born typhus in nearly three decades last year, as concerns continue about the effects of persistent and growing homelessness on public health.

The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday:

Flea-borne typhus was tied to three deaths in Los Angeles County last year amid a rise in reported cases of the illness, according to a report released Thursday.

The deaths marked the first time in almost three decades that anyone was reported to have died of illness associated with flea-borne typhus in L.A. County, public health researchers found. The report tallied 171 cases of flea-borne typhus reported in L.A. County in 2022 — a significant increase from the 31 cases reported in 2010.

The illness is caused by bacteria and spreads to humans through infected fleas. It can cause fever, headache, and rashes that spare the palms and soles of the feet, among other symptoms. There is no vaccine to prevent it. Roughly a third of infected patients need intensive care for conditions such as seizures and septic shock, according to the report. The vast majority of people treated with the antibiotic doxycycline survive the illness, but in rare cases it can be fatal.

All three of the victims had other, contributing health conditions. One was homeless; one may have been exposed to fleas through stray kittens; another lived near a highway where litter is common.

In 2019, some critics of the city’s homelessness policy began warning about the outbreak of infectious diseases like bubonic plague.

The most recent count of homeless people showed that the unhoused population had skyrocketed 10% in the past year in L.A. County, nearing 76,000 people.

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