Louse-borne typhus, also known as typhus, is an uncommon disease caused by the bacteria Rickettsia prowazekii. There are two type of the disease, endemic typhus and epidemic typhus. Endemic typhus is a disease is spread to humans by fleas on animals such as cats, raccoons, squirrels and rats. Epidemic typhus is spread to humans through body lice.
Outbreaks of typhus have been seen across the world. The first writings of typhus were from 1489 during the siege of Granada by the Spanish army. Approximately 17,000 soldiers lost their life to the typhus disease. Years later, in 1759, it was reported that 25% of English prisoners died from typhus, and the phrase “jail fever” became a new term. During the War of 1812, outbreaks of the disease led to approximately 300,000 deaths among French soldiers. These accounts were the beginning of many typhus outbreaks.
Outbreaks have also occurred in the United States. From 1976 to 2001, there were approximately 40 people in the Eastern part of the United States with confirmed cases. None of the people infected had contact with body lice or people with lice, although this was the only known method of transmission. It was later discovered that they came in contact with flying squirrels or their nests. Flying squirrels are “the only known vertebrate reservoir, other than humans.”
People infected with typhus experience symptoms such as fever, chills, headache, body and muscle aches, rash, cough, and nausea. Some may remain infected without experiencing symptoms for years. While they may not experience symptoms for years, they can develop the disease Brill-Zinsser which causes their immune system to weaken. The weakening of the immune system can be caused by several factors, including the use of certain medications, old age, or illness.
Today, typhus is commonly seen in communities in the cold mountainous regions of Africa and South America. While there is no vaccine to prevent a person from infection, there are other prevention methods a person can take. One is getting tested by a health care official to see if you are infected with the disease. Another prevention method includes avoiding overcrowded areas where body lice is said to thrive. Hygienic practices such as bathing regularly and changing into to clean clothes are also measures people can take. If a person has body lice or is infected with typhus, you should not share clothing, bedding or towels. Additionally, avoidance of flying squirrels and their nests should also be practiced as well.
Treatments such as antibiotics, one being doxycycline, are available for people to take to treat typhus.