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Health officials warn of typhus outbreak in downtown L.A.

Several people in downtown Los Angeles have fallen sick with typhus, a disease spread by fleas that can cause organ damage if left untreated.

L.A. County health officials said Thursday that they were working with city officials to clear trash and corral stray animals to curb the spread of the infection, which is typically associated with overcrowding and poor hygiene. Officials said nine cases were reported in the county from July to September.

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“Although typhus normally occurs throughout L.A. County, we are observing several cases in the downtown Los Angeles area,” said L.A. County health officer Dr. Muntu Davis. “We encourage pet owners to practice safe flea control and encourage all cities in the county to ensure maintenance of their trash cleanup and rodent control activities.”

Typhus is distinct from typhoid fever, a foodborne illness that is rarely contracted within the United States and can be spread from person to person.

Typhus, by contrast, cannot be passed between people. It spreads when fleas become infected with bacteria known as Rickettsia typhi or Rickettsia felis. The illness reaches humans when fleas bite them or when infected flea feces are rubbed into cuts or scrapes in the skin, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are about 200 typhus cases reported nationwide each year, most of which are in California, Hawaii and Texas, according to the CDC.

Typhus causes fever, body aches, stomach pain and a rash. Most people recover on their own, but more severe cases can lead to damage to the heart, brain and lungs without treatment.

County health officials advised that people avoid wild or stray animals, especially opossums, rats and stray cats. They also asked that people use lids on their trash cans to avoid attracting animals and use products on pets to reduce fleas.

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