A Suburban Focus of Endemic Typhus in Los Angeles County: Association with Seropositive Domestic Cats and Opossums

Frank J. SorvilloLos Angeles County Department of Health Services, California Department of Health Services, Department of Epidemiology, University of California, Los Angeles, California

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Barbara GondoLos Angeles County Department of Health Services, California Department of Health Services, Department of Epidemiology, University of California, Los Angeles, California

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Richard EmmonsLos Angeles County Department of Health Services, California Department of Health Services, Department of Epidemiology, University of California, Los Angeles, California

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Patrick RyanLos Angeles County Department of Health Services, California Department of Health Services, Department of Epidemiology, University of California, Los Angeles, California

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Stephen H. WatermanLos Angeles County Department of Health Services, California Department of Health Services, Department of Epidemiology, University of California, Los Angeles, California

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Arthur TilzerLos Angeles County Department of Health Services, California Department of Health Services, Department of Epidemiology, University of California, Los Angeles, California

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Ellen M. AndersenLos Angeles County Department of Health Services, California Department of Health Services, Department of Epidemiology, University of California, Los Angeles, California

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Robert A. MurrayLos Angeles County Department of Health Services, California Department of Health Services, Department of Epidemiology, University of California, Los Angeles, California

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A. Ralph BarrLos Angeles County Department of Health Services, California Department of Health Services, Department of Epidemiology, University of California, Los Angeles, California

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Thirty-three cases of locally acquired murine typhus were reported in Los Angeles County residents from May 1984 through February 1988. Only eight cases were reported over the previous 20-year period. Thirty (91%) cases resided within a suburban area encompassing approximately 50 km2 in northcentral Los Angeles or had contact with an animal from this area. Serologic testing (complement fixation and indirect fluorescent antibody) of selected animals in close association with human cases revealed a high prevalence of seropositivity among domestic cats and opossums. Nine (90%) of 10 resident cats tested had demonstrable antibody titers compared with none (0%) of 20 cats from a control area (P < 0.001). Suburban typhus cases were more likely than neighborhood controls to own a cat or dog (odds ratio = 6.9, 95% confidence interval = 1.8, 25.9, P = 0.002). Sixteen (42%) of 38 opossums trapped in close proximity to the residences of cases were seropositive versus none (0%) of 36 opossums from control areas (P < 0.001). A low frequency (2.8%) of seropositivity was found in commensal rodents, and the classic vector of murine typhus, Xenopsylla cheopis, was not found. Ectoparasite indices from seropositive opossums revealed heavy infestations with the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis (mean flea count = 104.7), a species that readily bites humans. These data provide evidence that a suburban focus of murine typhus exists in Los Angeles that differs substantially from the classic transmission cycle, and that cats, opossums and C. felis may play an important role in the occurrence of human cases.

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