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Typhus is any of several similar diseases caused by Rickettsia bacteria.[1] The name comes from the Greek typhos ( ) meaning smoky or hazy, describing the state of mind of those affected with typhus. The causative organism Rickettsia is an obligate parasite that cannot survive for long outside living cells. Typhus should not be confused with typhoid fever, as the diseases are unrelated.

Multiple diseases include the word "typhus" in their description. Types include:

Condition Bacterium Arthropod Notes
Epidemic typhus Rickettsia prowazekii Lice on humans When the term "typhus" is used without qualification, this is usually the condition meant. Also, historical references to "typhus" are now generally considered to be this condition.
Murine typhus or "endemic typhus" Rickettsia typhi Fleas on rats
Scrub typhus Orientia tsutsugamushi Harvest mites on humans or rodents Unlike the two conditions above, though it has the word "typhus" in the name, it is currently usually not classified in the typhus group, but in the closely related spotted fever group.[2]
Queensland tick typhus[3] or "Australian tick typhus" (and a spotted fever[4]) Rickettsia australis Ticks



Epidemic typhus

Murine typhus

  • Abdominal pain
  • Backache
  • Dull red rash that begins on the middle of the body and spreads
  • Extremely high fever (105 to 106 F or )
  • Hacking, dry cough
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

In human history

Civilian Public Service worker distributes rat poison for typhus control in Gulfport, Mississippi, c. 1945 The first reliable description of the disease appears during the Spanish siege of Moorish Granada in 1489. These accounts include descriptions of fever and red spots over arms, back and chest, progressing to delirium, gangrenous sores, and the stink of rotting flesh. During the siege, the Spaniards lost 3,000 men to enemy action but an additional 17,000 died of typhus.

Typhus was also common in prisons (and in crowded conditions where lice spread easily), where it was known as gaol fever or jail fever, and often occurs when prisoners are frequently huddled together in dark, filthy rooms. Thus, "Imprisonment until the next term of court" was often equivalent to a death sentence. It was so infectious that prisoners brought before the court sometimes infected the court itself. Following the Assize held at Oxford in 1577, later deemed the Black Assize, over 300 died from epidemic typhus, including Sir Robert Bell Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer. During the Lent Assize Court held at Taunton (1730) typhus caused the death of the Lord Chief Baron, as well as the High Sheriff, the sergeant, and hundreds of others. During a time when there were 241 capital offenses, more prisoners died from 'gaol fever' than were put to death by all the public executioners in the British realm. In 1759, an English authority estimated that each year a quarter of the prisoners had died from Gaol fever.[5] In London, typhus frequently broke out among the ill-kept prisoners of Newgate Gaol and then moved into the general city population.

A U.S. soldier is demonstrating DDT-hand spraying equipment. DDT was used to control the spread of typhus-carrying lice.

Epidemics occurred routinely throughout Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and occurred during the English Civil War, the Thirty Years' War and the Napoleonic Wars.[6] Pestilence of several kinds raged among combatants and civilians in Germany and surrounding lands from 1618 to 1648. According to Joseph Patrick Byrne, "By war's end, typhus may have killed more than 10 percent of the total German population, and disease in general accounted for 90 percent of Europe's casualties."[7]

During Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in 1812, more French soldiers died of typhus than were killed by the Russians.[8]

A major epidemic occurred in Ireland between 1816 19, during the famine caused by a world wide reduction in temperature known as the Year Without a Summer. It is estimated that 100,000 Irish perished. Typhus appeared again in the late 1830s, and yet another major typhus epidemic occurred during the Great Irish Famine between 1846 and 1849. The Irish typhus spread to England, where it was sometimes called "Irish fever" and was noted for its virulence. It killed people of all social classes as lice were endemic and inescapable, but it hit particularly hard in the lower or "unwashed" social strata.

In America, a typhus epidemic killed the son of Franklin Pierce in Concord, New Hampshire in 1843 and struck in Philadelphia in 1837. Several epidemics occurred in Baltimore, Memphis and Washington DC between 1865 and 1873. Typhus was also a significant killer during the US Civil War, although typhoid fever was the more prevalent cause of US Civil War "camp fever". Typhoid fever, caused by Salmonella, is a completely different disease from typhus.

In Canada alone, the typhus epidemic of 1847 killed more than 20 000 people from 1847 to 1848, mainly Irish immigrants in fever sheds and other forms of quarantine, who had contracted the disease aboard coffin ships.[9] Charles Nicolle received the 1928 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his identification of lice as the transmitter of epidemic typhus. De-lousing stations were established for troops on the Western front during World War I, but the disease ravaged the armies of the Eastern front, with over 150,000 dying in Serbia alone. Fatalities were generally between 10 to 40 percent of those infected, and the disease was a major cause of death for those nursing the sick. Between 1918 and 1922 typhus caused at least 3 million deaths out of 20 30 million cases. In Russia after World War I, during the civil war between the White and Red armies, typhus killed three million, largely civilians.

During World War II many German POWs after the loss at Stalingrad died of typhus. Typhus epidemics killed those confined to POW camps, ghettos and inmates in the Nazi Germany concentration camps who were held in unhygienic conditions. Pictures of typhus victims' mass graves can be seen in footage shot at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.[10] Among thousands of prisoners in concentration camps such as Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen who died of typhus [10] were Anne Frank at the age of 15 and her sister Margot. Even larger epidemics in the post-war chaos of Europe were only averted by the widespread use of the newly discovered DDT to kill the lice on millions of refugees and displaced persons.

The first typhus vaccine was developed by the Polish zoologist Rudolf Weigl in the period between the two world wars.[11] Better, less dangerous and less expensive vaccines were developed during World War II.

Since then some epidemics have occurred in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Contemporary society

According to the World Health Organisation, typhus continues to kill approximately a weighted average of 0.2 people per million, per annum.[12]. On May 24, 2012, Travis County in the state of Texas reported its first Typhus-related death. [13]


The best and suggested way to prevent getting Typhus is the typhus vaccine.


Without treatment, the disease can be fatal. Prompt treatment with antibiotics cures most patients.[14]


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