Murine typhus cases up to four in 2003 on Kaua‘i

The number of Murine typhus cases on Kaua‘i has increased from two to four since last year, but the higher number doesn’t suggest a trend the disease from rodents is on the rise, state Department of Health officials said yesterday.

The disease is transmitted by fleas from infected rodents, and has led to at least recent death in Hawai‘i. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, headaches, body aches, nausea , vomiting and skin rash.

The reported increase of two cases from last year on Kaua‘i is not a cause for alarm, and could be the result of better reporting, said Peggy Hedden of the Communicable Disease Control office with the DOH office on Kaua‘i.

DOH officials reported five cases on Kaua‘i in 1998, one case in 1999, three cases in 2000, no cases in 2002 and four this year.

Statewide, DOH officials reported 28 cases this year, down from 35 cases from last year, according to Laura Lott, a DOH spokeswoman based on O‘ahu.

Maui County registered the largest number of Murine typhus cases this year, possibly because of drought conditions that forced mice and rice, some carrying the disease, to head to lower-lying areas to look for food, water and shelter, Lott said.

The decline in the number of Murine typhus cases statewide may be attributed to the effective work of the vector division of the DOH, Lott said. The DOH crews have used rodent -control measures to check the population of rodents and to prevent the potential spread of the disease, Lott said.

“The vector control guys did a great job,” Lott said. “They put out bait and they had less of a problem this year.”

Hedden said “our (DOH’s) main concern in reporting the figures is prevention of this disease.”

Lott said a drought two years on Kaua‘i may have contributed to the increase in the number of cases reported this year.

At the time, rats and mice made their way down from dried-up canefields to lower-lying areas in West Kaua‘i that offered water, food and shelter.

The problem abated as a result of rodent control programs initiated by vector control staffers with the DOH office on Kaua‘i.

Jim Cassel Sr. , a farmer in Waimea Valley and who has been involved with Kaua‘i’s farming industry for 50 years, still remembers his first bout with Murine typhus.

In 1955, he served as a harvesting superintendent for Olokele Sugar Company in charge of burning cane in West Kaua‘i. During the burning of one canefield, rats and mice poured out from the field, and a flea from one of the rodents apparently bit him, Cassel said.

“You saw the rats when you saw the burning fields. And they ran by you and a flea hopped onto me,” Cassel said in an interview with The Garden Island.

He was sent to Waimea Hospital and was away from work for three weeks. He recuperated partially at the hospital and at his home, then in Kaumakani, Cassel recalled.

“I was totally delirious, ” Cassel said. “My wife couldn’t believe the way I was talking. Cassel was later told he had a fever of 105 degrees for ten days.

He was treated by the late Dr. Marvin Brennecke and Dr. Burt Wade, plantation doctors who diagnosed him with Murine typhus. They didn’t know exactly know to treat him because there was not much known about the disease at the time.

Cassel said he got well because he “toughed it out.”

He said he was lucky he survived. A minister for the Church of Nazarene in Hanapepe died from the disease in 1955.

Today, Cassel works on his farm in Waimea Valley and has a greenhouse that could attract rodents, some of which may carry the disease that struck him nearly 50 years ago.

“Maybe I’m immune to the disease,” quipped Cassel, who said he shudders at the thought that he might fall victim to the disease again. “I hope not,” he added.

Today, people can be treated with antibiotics, including doxycycline.

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and

How to avoid Murine typhus

  • Keep the home clean;
  • Discard uneaten pet food at the end of the day;
  • Clear brush, grass and junk food from around the house;
  • Set spring-loaded traps for rodents;
  • Check rodent traps daily and remove dead rodents;
  • When trapping rodents alive, submerge caged rodents in warm water until they die;
  • When using poisons, take extra precautions and follow the manufacturer’s directions carefully;
  • Spray flea killer or spread flea powder in the area before trapping;
  • Treat pet animals for fleas periodically;
  • Seal all entry holes a quarter-inch wide or wider to prevent entry of rodents.

For more information on communicable disease control, call 241-3563.


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