Murine typhus fever is a disease that occurs when people come into contact with fleas infected with a bacteria called Rickettsia typhi. Since 2008, when murine typhus became endemic in Travis County, the annual number of reported cases has ranged from 4 to 54.
As of July 11, 2016, 14 cases had been reported to Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services, whereas in all of 2015, we had a total of 15 cases. Most of the 2016 cases (84%) have been hospitalized. All cases reported during 2015 and 2016 have been adults except for one child. In 2012, Travis County had one death from murine typhus, with no additional deaths since that time.
Although murine typhus happens year round, most cases have onset of illness from May through September. Symptoms can begin from 6 to 14 days after exposure to an infected flea. Symptoms include high fever, headaches, chills, body aches and pains. A rash on the chest, back, arms and legs can sometimes occur. The disease is readily treatable with antibiotics.
In Austin/Travis County, wild animals such as rats and opossums as well as pets can carry the fleas that transmit the disease. Because these animals frequently come into close contact with people, they can be involved in the transmission cycle of this disease to humans.
Infected pets usually do not show any symptoms. If pets are infested with fleas, their fleas may become infected and transmit the disease to humans. Here are some steps to take to prevent pets and humans from getting murine typhus disease:
- Practice effective flea control: Pets, yards, and homes should be kept free of fleas. Oral and topical flea control medications can be effective. When purchasing pesticides to treat yards and homes, use only materials that target fleas and follow all label directions carefully.
- Eliminate nesting or hiding places: Homes should be kept in good repair to prevent rodents, opossums, stray or feral cats from entering the house or finding crawl spaces below the home. Yards should be kept clear of heavy undergrowth and debris to reduce areas where animals can nest or hide.
- Take personal precautions: Before cleaning nesting areas, apply effective insect repellent (one with DEET) and wear protective equipment such as a dust particle mask, goggles and gloves. Do not attempt to capture or re-locate wild animals to other areas. Contact 3-1-1 and ask for Animal Services.