Family shares details of murine typhus case and what to look for

Fleas with murine typhus were found on the couple's dogs
Fleas with murine typhus were found on the couple's dogs (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — An Austin man is warning people about murine typhus after his husband was recently diagnosed with the disease. The Centers for Disease Control is reporting, in Texas, there’s been an increase of 200 cases over a 10-year time span.

So what exactly is murine typhus? It’s a disease caused by a bacteria, spread to people when they come in contact with infected fleas. People get sick when waste from infected fleas is rubbed into cuts or scrapes in the skin. Cats and opossums can carry murine typhus, but rats are the main host for fleas with the disease. That was the case at David Wagner’s home.

It’s on his furry friends — dogs Cooper and Oscar — where Wagner found fleas.

“Ultimately had fleas on our dogs because of the rats we believe. Got into the house and ultimately, husband ended up getting sick,” he explained. “It was headaches, high fever, pains, aches, sweats… went to a doctor about three times over the course of a week and a half. None of whom were able to diagnose what was going on.”

That is, not until the state health department confirmed it was case of murine typhus. In Wagner’s north Austin zip code, 78757, Austin Public Health reports there were two other cases between 2013-2015. During that same time period, zip code 78753 had five cases and 78745, in south Austin, topped the list with six cases.

So far there have been 13 confirmed cases of murine typhus in Austin this year and health officials say we’re on track to meet the 30 cases seen last year.

Austin Public Health Medical Director Dr. Phil Huang says the key is catching it quick.

“The antibiotics are very effective but if you delay that, it can be a very serious illness. A lot of the patients, a high percentage of patients we have seen have been hospitalized. And we did have a death actually in 2012,” Dr. Huang said, which is why Austin Public Health is educating physicians to treat the disease even if they just suspect it.

“Even before they get the confirming lab diagnosis,” he said, which was the case with Wagner’s husband.

Though there is no vaccine to prevent murine typhus, most people recover without treatment, but there are steps you can take to prevent it. Experts say the best way is to keep rodents away from your home by removing brush, rock piles, cluttered firewood and pet food.

Moving forward, Wagner said, “We’re gonna pull out the garden. At least the tomatoes because that’s really what the rats seem to enjoy the most.”

He wants people to keep his family’s story in mind, especially through September, the time period when most cases are reported.

“This is something that is relatively uncommon but it certainly happens in Austin. More and more frequently as the weather is getting warm. So if you do come up with flu-like symptoms, something to think about. Because left untreated, this is something that can potentially be deadly,” Wagner said.

When he called Austin 311 for assistance, he learned there is no rodent abatement program like in some larger cities. Right now, the most the city can do is respond to a code violation impacting public health, like an overgrown property.

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