MONROVIA, Calif. (KTLA) — A California woman contracted typhus after disposing of a dead rat, then she later learned her neighbor contracted the virus at the same time.
“First, it was exhaustion and then a fever and then a headache,” said Margaret Holzmann. “I couldn’t do anything. I was just so exhausted.”
She thought she’d contracted COVID-19. But her coronavirus test came back negative, and she continued to feel ill for weeks and eventually went back to her doctor.
“He asked me the relevant question which is, ‘Have you had any contact with wild animals?’ and I thought, ‘No, not really’ and then I thought, ‘Oh, wait. There was that rat!’”
Holzmann had cleaned up a dead rat in her backyard. That was a mistake since infected fleas gave her typhus.
She posted her story to the Nextdoor app and found that other neighbors had typhus, too.
“Two blocks over, [a neighbor] says her grandfather got it around the same time I did, and [it was] also, same thing: disposing of a dead rat on their property,” Holzmann recalled.
It’s not clear how many people in the neighborhood were hit with the disease.
Dr. Suman Radhakrishna, director of Infectious Disease with Dignity Health, says typhus is commonly undiagnosed.
“They keep the infection, and then they come bite you and your pet. The pets don’t get infected, but we do,” Radhakrishna said. “For most patients, it gets better. So it’s very hard to distinguish because now they’re better and they’re not going to go back to the doctor.”
Common symptoms include chills, fever, headache, rash and muscle aches similar to those that accompany the flu. Typhus can be easily treated with antibiotics.
However, there are cases of persistent symptoms and even some severe cases.
“A small proportion of people can have liver or kidney failure and can have problems where it affects the brain,” Radhakrishna explained.
Holzmann said she hopes her experience can increase awareness and serve as a reminder for people to call an animal control service and let dead rats lie.
“If you see something in your yard, call someone who can dispose of it safely and don’t try to do it yourself,” Holzmann said.
Experts say that it’s also important to use flea medication on your pets.