The city of Los Angeles is suffering from an outbreak of a “middle ages” and “pioneer days” disease —typhus — typically found in homeless populations.
The outbreak began in October, according to CNN, with 57 cases of the flea- and flea feces-borne disease in downtown Los Angeles, not typically a hotbed of rare diseases. That was up from around 6 cases over the summer, all found in people “experiencing homelessness.”
According to L.A. public health officials, there were more than 120 reported cases of typhus in 2018, and that number is increasing steadily in the first months of 2019.
A local NBC affiliate says city officials assumed that the disease would remain largely within the homeless population, but lately, cases of typhus have been cropping up among an unexpected group of people: city officials.
“It felt like somebody was driving railroad stakes through my eyes and out the back of my neck,” Deputy City Attorney Liz Greenwood told Local 4 news. “Who gets typhus? It’s a medieval disease that’s caused by trash.”
Greenwood speculates that she got typhus fever from fleas riding on the rats that occasionally infest Los Angeles city buildings. Those fleas get their typhus from piles of garbage surrounding homeless encampments throughout the city.
“There are rats in City Hall and City Hall East,” Greenwood told NBC. “There are enormous rats and their tails are as long as their bodies.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who recently announced he would not pursue a presidential campaign in 2020, has been trying to control the typhus epidemic largely by allocating funds for trash cleanup, particularly in areas where homeless people gather to live for extended periods of time, including the city’s famous Skid Row.
“Last fall we directed multiple City departments to begin a coordinated and comprehensive effort to improve cleanliness and protect public health in the Civic Center, including City Hall and City Hall East,” a spokeswoman for the city of Los Angeles told local media.
“In addition to increased trash collection and cleanings, aggressive action has been taken to address pests both in the buildings and in the surrounding outside areas — including abatement treatments and the filling of 60 rodent burrows and 114 tree wells. This work in busy and highly populated public buildings is executed carefully to protect workers and visitors, and the scheduling of extermination activities takes these factors into consideration,” she added.
But it isn’t enough. Local media has continued to photograph piles of trash on Los Angeles city sidewalks, and as quickly as the trash can be collected, it reappears.
The root problem is something Los Angeles has been struggling to control for more than half a decade: rampant homelessness, driven by L.A.’s rising cost of living and the L.A. City Council’s “progressive” approach to combatting the increasing number of people sleeping rough, the L.A. Times reports. The city has been evicting and repossessing rundown properties to help expand housing opportunities for the middle class and, at the same time, urging police to resist breaking up homeless camps.
More than 55,000 people now live on the streets in Los Angeles, up a shocking 75% since Garcetti took office in 2013. Another 55,000 homeless people live in communities surrounding Los Angeles, like Pasadena, Long Beach, and Glendale.
“During an October  hygiene survey,” the L.A. Times says, “county public health officials identified 222 encampments, including 50 with 30 or more people living in them. These ragtag outposts have altered the basic terms of urban life.”
Those encampments appear to be where typhus and other communicable diseases thrive: “People in Koreatown step outside their fancy condos to find tents, rotting food and human feces at their doorsteps. Buses and trains have become de facto shelters, and thousands of people sleep in fear and degradation.”
Los Angeles says it plans on moving those populations into long-term shelters, but, shockingly, they need more money. Until then, residents are being told to watch their pets closely for fleas, and to have their homes fumigated if they believe they have a flea infestation.