Veterinarian warns of flea-spread disease on the rise in Bexar County after own hospitalization

Dr. Olga Jaimez says she and vet tech contracted murine typhus at work

By Garrett Brnger - Reporter, Luis Cienfuegos - Photojournalist

SAN ANTONIO - A San Antonio veterinarian is warning pet owners and others to keep watch for and prevent a flea-borne disease after a case of it hospitalized her.

Dr. Olga Jaimez, believes she and one of her vet techs caught murine typhus while working at her clinic, 4 Paws Animal Hospital. Within a few days of developing flu-like symptoms in June, Jaimez said she was at the emergency room with a 103-degree fever and red spots all over her body.

"I was in the hospital for six days and I thought I was gonna die," she said.

The disease, caused by a bacteria called Rickettsia typhi, is spread by fleas who have bitten infected animals such as cats, rats and possums, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The infected fleas can also catch a ride on people's pets, which bring them to close proximity to people.

"The flea is biting the rat and then -- then transmitting and jumping on the dog and cat that's carrying that safely," Jaimez said. "And then the dog can bring it to the house, and then the clients are getting bit."

Fleas poop when they bite, according to the CDC, and the excrement can be rubbed into the bite wound. The flea poop, which is also called "flea dirt," can be inhaled or rubbed into a person's eyes.

The disease has been on the rise in Bexar County over the past few years, spiking with 101 cases in 2018. There have already been 56 so far in 2019, with five more months left in the year.

"Well here in South Texas, flea season is year-round, but we do have fleas in the -- more fleas in the summer," Jaimez said.

Jaimez suggested pet owners ensure their pets stay flea-free using medications provided by a veterinarian. Though she also warned people without pets aren't in the clear.

"You certainly still could get typhus by just hiking, camping, if there's been any wildlife like possums around," Jaimez said.

Though Jaimez was hospitalized with her case of typhus, the CDC says severe illness is rare. However, the untreated disease can severely damage one or more organs, including the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and brain.

According to the CDC, symptoms of murine typhus, which begin within two weeks after exposure, include:

  • Fever and chills

  • Body aches and muscle pain

  • Loss of appetite

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Stomach pain

  • Cough

  • Rash (typically occurs around day 5 of illness)

Jaimez said it took some effort to convince her doctors to treat her for a possible zoonotic disease, and a test for typhus didn't come back until later. So beyond encouraging preventative measures, she's urging people to consider murine typhus as a possibility if they become sick.

"You know, whether it's really the flu, if you turn out negative maybe consult and ask your doctor about 'Hey test me for typhus,'" she suggested.

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