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Typhoid Fever In The LAPD: What You Need to Know

An LAPD car on Wall Street in Skid Row, Los Angeles. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)
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The LAPD says at least one officer has tested positive for Salmonella Typhi -- the bacteria that causes typhoid fever. The officer, who does not have typhoid fever itself, is a detective assigned to the Central Division located on Skid Row, the department said.

The LAPD has not commented on the detective's condition, but Robert Harris, vice president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said his treatment did not include an overnight stay at a hospital.

Two other detectives from the same division have symptoms consistent with the same bacteria, but they haven't been diagnosed yet, according to an LAPD spokesman.

The typhoid fever scare comes less than a month after a lieutenant and three officers at the West Valley Division contracted a treatment-resistant staph bacteria and on the heels of a bed bug outbreak that temporarily shut down the Pacific Division jail.

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"Enough is enough," said Harris. "We have got to handle this like the emergency that it is."

We know you have questions about all of this. And we have answers:

Is this case related to the 17 cases of typhus found in downtown L.A. last fall and one at City Hall in February?

No. Typhoid fever is not the same thing as typhus. They're caused by different bacteria and are transmitted differently, and typhoid fever is quite rare in the United States.

Salmonella Typhi, the bacteria that causes typhoid fever, is spread through contact with contaminated food or water -- or through close contact with a person who is infected or a carrier. It affects an estimated 22 million people around the world annually but only about 350 people in the U.S., most of whom get it while traveling to the Indian subcontinent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There were 14 cases of typhoid fever reported in L.A. County in 2018 and five cases have been reported so far this year, according to the County Department of Public Health.

What are the symptoms of typhoid fever?

Symptoms include a high fever, headache, abdominal pain, along with either diarrhea or constipation. You should see a doctor immediately. It's treatable with antibiotics, according to the CDC. Getting treatment is critical; as many as 30% of people who don't get treated die from complications. Here's a more detailed rundown.

Do we have any idea how the detective got infected?

The LAPD and County Department of Public Health have not yet determined how the detective picked up Salmonella Typhi. However, it turns out that Cal/OSHA, the state agency that regulates workplace safety, investigated the Central Division building last November and found officials had not dealt sufficiently with infestations of rats, fleas, roaches and other tiny critters. The investigators also found LAPD had not trained its staff on how to prevent typhus. These and a few other violations, including not keeping the parking structure clean, earned the LAPD a $5,425 fine.

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How can I avoid getting typhoid fever?

The public health department recommends you get vaccinated against typhoid fever if you plan to leave the country -- although the vaccine's effectiveness wanes over time. The World Health Organization says it's about 70% effective one-and-a-half years after vaccination, and about 50% three years after vaccination.

Other tips (mostly common sense):

  • Avoid getting sick from food and drinks by sticking to safe eating and drinking habits, like cooking food thoroughly and only drinking bottled or canned drinks.
  • Wash your hands before eating or drinking.
  • Avoid direct contact with garbage or sewage.

So what's the skinny on typhus?

A different bacterium, Rickettsia typhi, causes typhus. The specific type we encounter in L.A. is called murine typhus, and it's endemic to the area, meaning it's always around. The 109 cases reported last year represent an unusually high number, but L.A. County has averaged 56 cases a year since 2010, according to the County Department of Public Health.

The way you get murine typhus is kind of gross -- an infected flea rubs its feces into cuts or scrapes on your skin. Rats host the fleas in most parts of the world, but in California infected fleas can also be found on your cat.

What are the symptoms of murine typhus?

Symptoms may include fever, chills, body aches, muscle pain, nausea and vomiting. The antibiotic doxycycline can knock it down, according to the CDC. Most people recover from typhus without treatment, but when left untreated it can damage vital organs, including the heart, liver and brain. Here is a fuller description.

How has the LAPD responded?

LAPD officials had crews from the city's General Services Department disinfect work areas that may have been infected at the Central Division. That was completed Wednesday night, according to LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein.

"The health and well-being of every LAPD employee is vital and we will be working diligently to ensure we create a safe work environment," the department said in a statement. "Unfortunately, our police officers often patrol in adverse environments and can be exposed to various dangerous elements."

Does the growing homeless population play a role in the spread of these bacteria?

"Certainly when you have problems with hygiene -- and that's a common problem with the homeless -- you are at increased risk of a number of things," said Jonathan Fielding, former director the County Department of Public Health and now a professor at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health.

But there are myriad possible sources, he said, and officials should not "rush to conclusions ... we should not assume the homeless were the origin."

Examples of foods that might carry the typhoid fever bacteria include raw or runny eggs, undercooked fish or meat, and unwashed or sometimes unpeeled fruits or vegetables, Fielding said.

And contrary to what the police union's Harris said, Fielding does not characterize the various cases of bacterial infections at the LAPD as an emergency.

What else does the police union say about the infections?

Union Vice President Harris said the LAPD's 21 patrol stations need to be cleaned more often and at a higher level instead of receiving a "stereotypical office cleaning." Officers interact more and more with people on the streets who don't have regular access to toilets and showers and sometimes live in "deplorable conditions" ripe for the spread of disease, he said.

Last year the Police Protective League bought about 500 pairs of thicker gloves for officers who deal with homeless people, Harris said, adding the union is not looking to place blame but wants to be partners with LAPD brass.

Department spokesman Rubenstein said while there are ongoing discussions about how to keep facilities free from dangerous diseases, the LAPD has no plans for stricter cleaning regimens or new equipment for the officers. "At this point, I don't know there is anything that can be done," he said.

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