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Typhus: A Modern Fight Against a Medieval Disease

By Laryssa Gazda, Staff Writer

Graphic by Madeline Lee, Graphics Editor

Imagine falling ill with what you thought was a bad case of the flu, only to visit the doctor’s office and discover that you’ve contracted typhus. You may think to yourself, “Wait a second… people still get that?” They do, and, in fact, it may be more common than you think.

Typhus is a disease caused by different species of Rickettsia bacteria, a group of bacteria most commonly carried by lice and fleas. Insects become infected after biting animals such as rats, opossums, and stray cats. The bacteria invades an insect’s intestinal tract, and is excreted in its feces. People are most commonly infected when they scratch a bite, rubbing the feces and bacteria into the wound.

Frequently associated with crowded areas, filth, cold, war, famine, ships, and other unsanitary or densely-populated environments, epidemic (lice-borne) typhus has been a fast-spreading and devastating disease throughout history. As living conditions and hygiene improved throughout the 20th century, typhus virtually disappeared from western Europe; however, the disease remained epidemic in other parts of the world. Today, lice-borne typhus is thought to be eliminated in first-world countries yet still common in impoverished areas.

As a lifelong resident of New England, I have never heard of anyone getting typhus. Growing up, I had no idea that fear of contracting the disease is not only a reality for people in developing countries but also for some in highly-developed countries like the U.S. Today, endemic (flea-borne) typhus is the main concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), human cases of flea-borne typhus are reported around the world, but in the U.S., most cases occur in warm-climate states such as Texas, California and Hawaii. Flea-borne typhus is classified as epidemic (always present) in California, primarily in the Los Angeles and Orange counties.

What is causing this increase in cases of typhus in the U.S.? An increase in the number of homeless, especially in cities in California, is theorized to be one factor. Scientists have suggested that the spike is largely due to the conditions to which homeless individuals are subjected. For example, out of all the cities in the U.S., Los Angeles has some of the worst conditions when it comes to typhus. Dr. Glenn Lopez, a physician at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in Los Angeles provides insight to this question: “The hygiene situation is just horrendous,” says Dr. Lopez. “It becomes just like a third-world environment where their human feces contaminate the areas where they are eating and sleeping.” Dr. Lopez’s comparison helps to highlight just how bad homeless living conditions are becoming, along with how much work will be needed to improve typhus safety.


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