Monrovia woman contracts typhus after tossing dead rat in trash

A Monrovia woman contracted typhus after disposing of a dead rat she found in her backyard.

"I was out in the backyard with my dog and I saw the dead rat and I was a little worried she was going to eat it and get sick so I thought I better clean that up right away. I went inside and I got a bag and turned it inside out and then I went back outside and I picked it up and turned the bag inside out and threw it in the trash and didn't really think any more of it. I didn't even mention it to my husband," said Margaret Holzmann.

Holzmann said about 10 days later, she felt fatigued and suffered from an intense headache.

"Then the next day, I had a fever and then the next day the fever got higher and every day, I was having a fever of 103," she said.

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Holzmann feared she might have contracted COVID-19.

"I went and had a COVID test and it was negative and then I thought 'oh I have the flu, I'll just wait it out,'" said Holzmann.

She then called her doctor for more insight into her illness.

"Right away, he said 'have you had any contact with wild animals?' and at first I thought, 'No, I didn't have any,' and then I remembered about the rat in the backyard and I told him about it and he said we want to do some blood tests," she said.

The doctor determined she had typhus. Typhus is an infection that is caused by fleas, usually on dead rats.

"These fleas are what we call a vector. They carry the Typhus bacteria and they will get it from the rat and then if people are near those rats, those fleas will travel onto the person and bite them and will cause an infection," said Dr. Hector Castillo, a doctor of Family Medicine at California Hospital Medical Center.

Dr. Castillo said it is important to be very cautious when disposing of dead animals and urges people to call animal control instead.

"It is not the first thing you think of when you see a dead rat. The first thing you think of is you want to get rid of it. You want to maybe pick it up, put it in the trash and be done with it but you absolutely must be careful in handling them," he said.

Castillo said the symptoms can include fever, headaches, body aches, and children normally experience gastrointestinal symptoms. Typhus is treated with antibiotics.

"Most cases of typhus are mild and they resolve but I would not risk it because typhus can be fatal and it's very easily treated," said Castillo.

Castillo also said to be cautious of pets around dead animals. Experts recommend flea medication for pets too.

"You just want to be careful again if you notice these symptoms, or maybe come across something the cat got into, the dog got into, just be over cautious, and if there's any symptoms or concerns, I would see a doctor," he said.

Holzmann said she suffered from symptoms for about two weeks before feeling better. She was treated with antibiotics. She alerted her neighbors about what happened too.

"I posted about it on Nextdoor because I felt like after telling my immediate neighbors door to door, I should let more people know about it, and people started to write back saying they had it a while ago and this one person a couple streets over said we live nearby and my grandfather caught it also disposing of a dead rat at around the same time and he's been hospitalized and not doing well so that was sad to hear," she said.

She said her doctor told her to either call animal control in the future or wear insect repellent with DEET, full pants with socks over them, rubber gloves and to use a shovel to dispose of the rat.  She hopes her story can raise awareness about typhus.

"I just felt like people ought to know because chances are they're gonna find things in the yard and think it's OK to take care of it the way that I did," said Holzmann. 

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