Southern California

Possums Likely Culprit as “Niche Disease” Appears in SoCal Communities

Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote regarding fliers from the health department to Brian Battaglia. This article now reflects attribution to Chuck Battaglia.

A form of typhus with flu-like symptoms that can lead to hospitalization if left untreated is popping up in parts of Southern California, and possums are the likely culprits.

Cases of Murine Typhus, an infection spread by either flea bites or contact with flea feces, are being reported in the communities of Altadena, Los Feliz and Pasadena and South Pasadena, which have large possum populations, said Dr. Rachel Civen of the LA County Health Department, who calls it "a niche disease."

Symptoms include high fever, nausea, fatigue and muscle weakness. Forty — six cases were reported in LA County in 2014, three in Altadena, where crews posted notices and launched a possum search.

The opossums found in Southern California are also referred to as possums.

"Possums have massive proportions of fleas on them," Civen said. "Thousands of them."

That makes them ideal carriers for the disease. Fleas carry the disease from rats, opossums or feral cats, and can infect the family pet.

"It’s a pretty benign disease for dogs and cats," Civen said, but the pet can infect other fleas, which then can bite and infect humans. Murine typhus symptoms are similar to flu, and can be difficult to pinpoint and diagnose.

That’s what happened to Chuck Battaglia, a 74-year old ear, nose and throat doctor who landed in the hospital after his typhus was incorrectly diagnosed as flu.

Battaglia usually walks to work at his practice in Old Town Pasadena three times a week. In late January, the idea of walking became less appealing and he began feeling more tired than usual. And that was only the beginning.

The fatigue became overwhelming.

"I had a fever of about 101 degrees," Battaglia said. Then came the night sweats. And things only got worse. He had no appetite and stopped eating. Dehydration set in. Soon his muscles got weaker and weaker. He lost control of his bladder.

A similar story was unfolding not far away at his son’s house.

Doctors originally diagnosed Brian Battaglia’s illness as the flu. But both men knew it wasn’t as simple as that.

It was a conversation with a friend in Altadena that finally led to some answers.

"He told me the health department had passed out fliers about a disease," Chuck Battaglia said.

The fliers described symptoms similar to what both men were experiencing. Brian demanded a typhus test, which came back positive. In the meantime, Chuck was bound for a three-day stay at the hospital, where antibiotic treatments started beating back the disease.

Chuck Battaglia says it took him nearly three weeks to recover, "though I’m still having night sweats." He also may not look at his 6-year old cocker spaniel Molly the same way again. Even though he said with a laugh, "she’s staring up at me adoringly right now."

The LA County Health Department offered several tips to keep the disease at bay:

  • Make sure your dog or cat has excellent flea control.
  • Don’t feed wild animals
  • Make sure trash is covered so wild animals don’t make their home around your house.
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