Typhus and Homeless Encampments: A Problematic Health Hazard

Typhus is usually spread from rats to fleas to humans. Typhus Fever or Typhoid Fever, generally is known as a disease impacting people who live in Third World Countries that lack proper sanitation facilities. While this is true, in recent years there has been an uptick in the spread of typhus in the United States. This is occurring in some homeless encampments in the country. A reasonable concern at this juncture in time is that typhus will continue to persist in homeless encampments and then spread to the general population as well.

What is Typhus?

Typhus is a fever that is caused by a derivation of the salmonella bacteria. Specifically, typhus is caused by the salmonella typhi bacteria. A more common strain of salmonella in the United States is the primary cause of what commonly is referred to as “food poisoning.” Typhus can result in serious illness which can occasionally be fatal. Typhus can be treated effectively with antibiotics.

The strain of salmonella bacteria that causes typhus is spread in a trio of ways:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Close contact with an infected person

Symptoms of Typhus

Typhus symptoms are divided into early and late phase. Early phase symptoms of typhus include:

  • Fever that starts low but increases daily (can reach as high as 104.9 Fahrenheit)
  • Headache
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating
  • Dry cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Rash
  • Significantly swollen abdomen

Not all early phase symptoms occur in every case of typhus. With that said, ultimately an early phase infection results in fever that ratchets up slowly but surely. Hence, the common term applied to this condition of typhoid fever.

Later phase symptoms include:

  • Become delirious
  • Lie motionless
  • Exhaustion
  • Eyes half-closed in what is called the typhoid state

When the early symptoms of typhus exhibit, an individual should seek medical attention. As was noted, typhus can be successfully treated with antibiotics. As was also noted, typhus – at least in the United States – typically is not fatal. With that said, if left untreated, the risk of death does exist when an individual develops typhoid fever.

An issue with typhus spreading in a homeless encampment is the reality that medical care and treatment oftentimes is not readily available or easily accessible to people residing in camps. Children are particularly at risk in such a situation because they are more susceptible to becoming more significantly ill when suffering from typhus.

Preventing Typhus at Homeless Encampments.

Two courses of action exist to prevent an outbreak of typhus in a homeless encampment in the first instance. Keep in mind that a real possibility exists that typhus could initially break out in a homeless encampment because of the living conditions and then spread to the community at large. Thus, prevention and containment at the encampment level can be vital.

First, a vaccine has been developed to stave off typhus in some cases. Although the vaccine is helpful, is not foolproof. It does not prevent a typhus infection for all people and has a notable lower efficacy rate than does something like the flu vaccine.

Second, addressing sanitation issues at homeless encampments can prove useful in preventing typhus in the first instance. Some communities in Southern California have taken steps to place portable sanitary toilets at the location of homeless encampments. One of the objectives to taking this step is to prevent the spread of disease. In the absence of toilet facilities, residents of homeless encampments are left to urinate and defecate in the open.

It is necessary to note that the placement of toilets at the location of homeless encampments has been met with controversy. Although there is recognition that direct access to toilets can prove helpful in fighting the spread of disease, the placement of these facilities makes a homeless encampment more permanent. Many members of the community at large bridle at the prospect of making homeless encampments more permanent features.

When it comes to addressing sanitation issues as a means of preventing the spread of typhus at homeless encampments, the cleaning of these camps is another effective measure. As noted, biohazards like human urine and feces can collect at the site of homeless encampments, substances that are capable of containing bacteria and viruses, potentially even the bacteria capable of causing typhus.

Many Southern California communities have developed relatively strict guidelines regarding how a homeless encampment can be cleaned up. In short, in these communities, an encampment can be cleaned up and the biohazards removed but the encampment itself cannot be dissembled and property of those who reside in a camp cannot be taken. Professional biohazard remediation typically is the recommended course of action to address the cleanup of a homeless encampment.

While the dignity of all people must be respected, candid assessments must be made of the health risks that can exist in and around homeless encampments. These honest assessments serve to benefit both residents of homeless encampments and the community at large.