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Two Cases of Typhus Reported

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles County health officials confirmed two local cases of endemic typhus Friday and urged residents to trim bushes that are favorite foraging grounds for rodents linked to the disease.

Health officials said two men in their 20s, living in Pasadena and South Pasadena, came down last month with the illness, whose symptoms include severe headaches, high fever, muscle aches and rash.

Both men were treated with antibiotics and recovered, said Roshan Reporter, a physician in the county health department’s acute communicable disease control unit.

Endemic typhus is often contracted from fleas that have been living on rats and opossums, but cannot be transmitted from one person to another. Pets that spend time outside can also harbor the fleas.

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Most people who come down with the illness recall having been bitten by fleas, Reporter said.

“It can make people very sick. Occasionally there is a fatality, probably less than 1%,” Reporter said. She said the elderly are most vulnerable to complications, which can include liver problems.

The cases confirmed Friday were the first this year. Health officials issue public service announcements regarding the illness annually about this time.

There were 23 cases of endemic typhus reported in Los Angeles County last year and 70 since 1993, an increase over previous years. Reporter said it was unclear if the rise was a result of more instances of the illness or better reporting.

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The illness is less serious than epidemic typhus, which is borne by body lice, Reporter said.

In addition to advising residents to trim plants where rodents might live and feed, Reporter urged them to treat homes inside and out with flea remedies. She said residents also should close off openings to attics and basements and seal doorways.

Once largely linked to crowded city conditions and transmitted by rats, endemic typhus more recently has borne a suburban marking.

“This type of typhus is a little different. It’s occurring in the suburban areas where there’s more contact with wildlife,” Reporter said.

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“The opossums carry lots of fleas. Sometimes they carry 200 fleas on them--or more,” she said.

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.

The beady-eyed opossums are prevalent in those areas.

“We have possums in our yard--one of them slept in our cellar for years,” said Gloria Ramirez, 65, a Monrovia homeowner. “At one point we had a friend down on his luck living in our cellar and he used to call the possum his roommate.”

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She said her family’s only fear of the animal concerned rabies. “We have never had any problems with them,” Ramirez said as she chose plants at a garden center.

Steve McNall, executive director of the Pasadena Humane Society, said opossums are “as common as gardens” in the Pasadena area.

Last year, the Pasadena Humane Society picked up 460 live opossums and 473 dead ones in Pasadena, San Marino, Sierra Madre and Arcadia, McNall said.

“I see them when driving in the early morning or late at night,” said Duarte resident Ted Taylor. “More often than not, they are flattened on the road.”

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Animal control specialists said opossums, marsupials that come out at night, favor woodpiles, garages and crawl spaces. In areas where they are active, the creatures can frequently be seen rustling through ivy and other bushes.

“They’ll eat garbage if they can get it, and eat fruit,” said Bob Ballenger, spokesman for the county’s animal control department. “We tell homeowners to pick up fruit if you have fruit trees and keep your garbage sealed in containers--don’t leave it in bags. If you have pets, take their food and water in at night.”

Ballenger said the number of opossums did not appear to be higher this year than in the past. The county will pick up opossums that have been trapped but cannot respond to individual sightings, Ballenger said.

"[Residents] should not, under any circumstances, handle any wild animal. Wild animals bite,” he said.

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