Man Contracts Rare Infectious Disease—Typhus—After Flea Bite

In June 2023, Michael, a 35-year-old man from Houston, started feeling ill and achy. By June 19, his symptoms had worsened significantly. Both Michael and his family believed that he had the flu, severely enough that his mother J’Leene took him to the ER. Reporting from CBS Austin and SBG San Antonio shared that Michael was admitted into the intensive care unit (ICU) the same day; doctors had diagnosed him with septic shock.

But more frightening was the fact that doctors couldn’t seem to, at first, figure out what was causing the sepsis to occur. One day later, his organs began to fail. Doctors put Michael on 24-hour dialysis, ventilatory assistance, and a variety of medications. In a heart-wrenching moment, J’Leene shares in her GoFundMe that Michael—who has a zest for life, a genuine gift for connection, and a free spirit—was not expected to survive. The family all came together to honor his life.

But Michael is a fighter. And so for a day, then for a week, he fought. On July 1, 2023, Michael was removed from sedation. Soon after, he woke up. The doctors told Michael and his family that he had gotten bitten by a flea. That single solitary flea bite led to him contracting typhus.

Due to the combined damage from the bite and the medications Michael was on, he required amputation of both hands up to the forearm, as well as multiple foot surgeries, including joint amputations. Although he still struggles with pain, and how this will affect him long-term, both Michael and his family are hopeful that his recovery will go swiftly and as easily as possible.

Unfortunately, Michael does not currently have health insurance. This means that his bills may be extraordinary and outstanding. His parents are running a GoFundMe to assist with raising money to cover some of his medical expenses. If you would like to donate, you may do so here

About Typhus

The CDC explains that flea-borne typhus is a rare infectious disease spread by infected fleas, most often the cat or Oriental rat flea. These fleas bite infected animals and then become infected with Rickettsia typhi (R. typhi). They then transmit this infection to humans through bites, though infected flea dirt may also enter the body through respiratory means or other wounds. Typhus is most common in tropical, subtropical, and temperate climates; in the United States, cases most often occur in southern California, southern Texas, and Hawaii. 

Symptoms of typhus appear within a few days to two weeks following infection, and may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Appetite loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • A high fever and chills
  • Muscle pain and general body aches
  • Cough
  • A flat red rash that appears on the chest, back, arms, and legs
  • Swelling of the brain and heart valves

Most cases resolve with antibiotic treatment. Many people who remain untreated, or whose condition isn’t identified as typhus, end up hospitalized. Without treatment, typhus can lead to organ damage. While deaths do occur, they are rare, happening in less than 1% of all cases.

Jessica Lynn

Jessica Lynn

Jessica Lynn has an educational background in writing and marketing. She firmly believes in the power of writing in amplifying voices, and looks forward to doing so for the rare disease community.

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