“Medieval” Diseases Flare as Unsanitary Living Conditions Proliferate

Thursday, March 28, 2019
By Paul Martin

Typhus and other infectious illnesses hit homeless communities

By Anna Gorman, Kaiser Health News
ScientificAmerican.com
March 15, 2019

Jennifer Millar keeps trash bags and hand sanitizer near her tent, and she regularly pours water mixed with hydrogen peroxide on the sidewalk nearby. Keeping herself and the patch of concrete she calls home clean is a top priority.

But this homeless encampment off a Hollywood freeway ramp is often littered with needles and trash, and soaked in urine. Rats occasionally scamper through, and Millar fears the consequences.

“I worry about all those diseases,” said Millar, 43, who said she has been homeless most of her life.

Infectious diseases—some that ravaged populations in the Middle Ages—are resurging in California and around the country, and are hitting homeless populations especially hard.

Los Angeles recently experienced an outbreak of typhus—a disease spread by infected fleas on rats and other animals—in downtown streets. Officials briefly closed part of City Hall after reporting that rodents had invaded the building.

People in Washington state have been infected with Shigella bacteria, which is spread through feces and causes the diarrheal disease shigellosis, as well as Bartonella quintana, which spreads through body lice and causes trench fever.

Hepatitis A, also spread primarily through feces, infected more than 1,000 people in Southern California in the past two years. The disease also has erupted in New Mexico, Ohio and Kentucky, primarily among people who are homeless or use drugs.

Public health officials and politicians are using terms like “disaster” and “public health crisis” to describe the outbreaks, and they warn that these diseases can easily jump beyond the homeless population.

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