Doctor: Old flea-contracted disease making comeback in Galveston County

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Doctors thought it was gone decades ago, but now it could be making a comeback (KTRK)

A disease that spread through Galveston County more than 60 years ago and kept people sick for weeks is making a comeback, according to an infectious disease specialist at UTMB-Galveston.

Dr. Lucas Blanton says since 2012, there have been about 20 cases of murine typhus. The bacteria that causes it, Rickettsia typhi, is passed to humans by the feces of fleas found on rats and fleas common to both opossums and cats. Those who fall ill can suffer from fever and pain for weeks.

Blanton says the disease was common in coastal areas of the United States decades ago.

"I won't say it completely disappeared, perhaps clinicians weren't recognizing it, but it really did have a tremendous drop off after the use of DDT in the 1940's," Blanton said.

But now, it appears to be back.

Blanton and local animal control officers say blood and flea samples from a few locally trapped opossums tested positive for the disease. Blanton will start a project to trap and test rats as well.

People who contract the disease usually get it when they scratch a flea bite or wound, spreading the mucus membrane packed with bacteria.

Only about 2 to 4 percent of hospitalized patients die from murine typhus, making it rarely deadly. However, it can cause fever, headaches, chills, malaise and a rash. Symptoms can last up to two weeks and even those young and healthy can be affected, Blanton said.

"Diagnosing this can be very challenging," Blanton said.

Doctors can mistake it for other illnesses so it may go untreated for weeks, he said.

Blanton hopes that the warning will encourage residents to keep fleas under control and find ways to discourage rats and opossums from living near their homes.
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healthcenters for disease controlutmbGalveston
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