August 7, 2008

Side Step - Typhus cases reported in Central Austin

Local strain is more severe than more common forms of disease.
By Regina Dennis, Mary Ann Roser


Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department is investigating about a dozen cases of possible typhus infection, most of them reported in Central Austin.

The type of typhus found in Texas, murine typhus, is most commonly caused by rats and their fleas, but opossums and cats can also be involved in transmitting the disease, according to the Department of State Health Services Web site. People get it from an infected flea.

Carole Barasch, a spokeswoman for the local agency, said the department is working with the Department of State Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to investigate the outbreak.

"It is unusual," she said. "From 1997 to 2006 there were no reports of typhus (in Travis County)." She said she did not know how many were reported last year.

This particular strain of typhus is believed to be deadlier than other strains commonly found in South Texas.

"What the CDC told me is that the strain we're getting here is so much more lethal than what they've been seeing at the border," said Linda Komm, whose son and husband both were diagnosed with typhus. "At the border, people have been getting it and (are) able to (tough) it out, but here, everyone that's been getting it has been going to the hospital."

Her husband, 60-year-old Jim Nix, was admitted into the emergency room at Seton Medical Center on June 6 after suffering severe headaches, fever and nausea.

"I was so weak that I couldn't even get out of the bed," he said. "I had to be carried into the hospital."

Nix said he had seen four or five doctors who were unsure of what caused his sickness. After an initial diagnosis of viral meningitis, Nix was diagnosed with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, or TTP, a rare blood disease with symptoms similar to typhus. He had been in and out of the hospital for 12 days.

As Nix was leaving the hospital, his 7-year-old son, Raleigh, was admitted into Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas with similar symptoms. Komm said a pediatric disease specialist immediately diagnosed Raleigh with typhus and started him on treatment before getting a positive culture sample. Raleigh remained in the hospital for about a week.

Nix was tested and positively diagnosed with typhus after his son's treatment, he said. He said he thinks they contracted the disease from fleas carried into their home by their two cats.

Murine typhus typically occurs in South Texas, from Nueces County south to the Rio Grande Valley. The most recent data on the state health department's Web site said there were 53 cases in Texas in 2002. Emily Palmer, spokeswoman for the department, said she didn't know if there were cases in subsequent years or if the site had not been updated.

Palmer said she was unaware of the status of any Travis County cases. She said the local health department is leading the investigation, with help from her agency and the CDC.

People can protect themselves by clearing brush, trash and other debris from their yards; bringing in pet food at night; preventing rodents from living in the house; and treating fleas before beginning rodent control in the house or yard (to keep fleas from searching for new hosts), according to the state's Web site.; 445-3851; 445-3619

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