Santa Ana Typhus Scare

“In an effort to combat a potential typhus outbreak,” reports today’s Los Angeles Times, “city officials zeroed in on two schools in [a] densely packed [Santa Ana] neighborhood and set a dozen traps to catch feral cats and other animals that might carry disease-bearing fleas.” [1]

“The hope is that by trapping and testing animals caught at Willard Intermediate School and El Sol Science and Arts Academy, officials will be able to determine if a recent case of typhus—the first in Santa Ana this year—originated in the community. In late April, a child was hospitalized as a result of the virus, which is caused by bacteria found in infected fleas and their feces. The child was later released.”

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s PubMed Health website, “Endemic typhus is uncommon in the United States… Murine typhus occurs in the southeastern and southern United States, often during the summer and fall. It is rarely deadly. Risk factors for murine typhus include:

  • Exposure to rat fleas or rat feces
  • Exposure to other animals (such as cats, opossums, raccoons, skunks, and rats)

“Prompt antibiotic treatment,” notes the website, “will cure nearly all patients.” Which would seem to be the case here.

As for the connection between the infected child and the cats, that seems to be mostly speculation.

“We do have a colony of them that live up here,” Corporal Sondra Berg, of the Santa Ana Police Animal Services, explained to KABC-TV on Tuesday. “It’s not uncommon for them to live in this area. It’s heavily populated, so there are a lot of food sources for them out here, and so they stay where they know where they have the food.”

According to the Times, though, it’s not clear at all that the cats are the cause.*

“The hope is that by trapping and testing animals caught at Willard Intermediate School and El Sol Science and Arts Academy, officials will be able to determine if a recent case of typhus—the first in Santa Ana this year—originated in the community.” [1]

What is clear is that this roundup won’t actually do much to protect public health (assuming the cats are actually the source of the typhus). As Berg points out, there’s adequate food and shelter; more cats will show up in time. Officials will, more than likely, kill just enough for complaints to subside—the usual course of action.

Which demonstrates what a low-level risk the cats really are. (If, as the KABC-TV story claims, “the traps were placed in areas not accessible by students,” one wonders just how “accessible” the cats are!)

And if all cats were kept away out of the “densely packed neighborhood” at the center of all this (an obvious impossibility, but one that seems to be implied in the various news stories I’ve seen)? The rat population would almost certainly skyrocket.

And with it, the number of fleas.

Literature Cited
1. Cruz, N.S. (2012, May 30). Santa Ana traps feral cats in attempt to limit typhus. The Los Angeles Times, from http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-typhus-alert-20120530,0,1308406.story

* This didn’t stop Michael Hutchins, CEO/executive director of The Wildlife Society, from making the connection. Indeed, in his comments on a Saturday L.A. Times story, Hutchins went further, implicating (without the burden of evidence, as is his habit) not just feral cats (“a growing problem nationwide”) but TNR, which “puts more and more cats out into the environment where they can kill native wildlife and spread diseases. Public health officials need to take notice of this growing risk.”

It’s odd that Hutchins didn’t associate himself with TWS. Odd, too, that he didn’t take up the issue on his home turf, the TWS blog, where he claimed recently that his comments “are not personal [but] reflect the views of 11,000 wildlife professionals.” Perhaps others at TWS, having grown tired of Hutchins’ witch-hunt, have finally begun to exercise some editorial control.

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