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The disease


Typhus is a group of diseases. Typhus includes epidemic typhus, scrub typhus and murine typhus. It was the epidemic typhus that killed a lot of people in history. All types  are caused by bacterial infection (rickettsia). Each type is caused by a different type of rickettsial bacteria and transmitted by a different type of arthropod. The type of typhus you are infected with depends on what bit you.

Arthropods: definition by Cambridge Dictionary: "a type of animal with no spine, a hard outer skin, legs with bones joined together, and a body divided into different parts, for example a spider, crab, or ant"



Fleas, mites, lice, and ticks are known as arthropods. When these animals are infected with ricketsial bacteria and they bite someone, they transmit the bacteria that causes typhus.


Epidemic typhus is caused by Rickettsia prowazekii, a bacteria carried by the body louse, and possibly by ticks as well. It can be found around the world, but it is typically found in areas of high population and poor sanitation.






Typhus is not transmitted from person to person like the flu. Symptoms, however, can be different by the type of typhus, but there are symptoms that are normally the same with all three types of typhus, such as:

  • headache
  • fever
  • chills
  • rash

Here are some complications (an extra medical problem that makes it difficult to treat an existing illness of typhus):

  • hepatitis - a serious disease of the liver
  • gastrointestinal hemorrhage - bleeding inside the intestines
  • hypovolemia - decrease in blood fluid volume


Symptoms of epidemic typhus usually appear suddenly and include:

  • severe headache
  • high fever (above 39 Celsius)
  • rash -begins on the back or chest and spreads
  • confusion
  • stupor and seeming out of touch with reality
  • low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • eye sensitivity to bright lights
  • severe muscle pain



Antibiotic therapy is recommended for both endemic typhus infections because early treatment with antibiotics (e.g. azithromycin, doxycycline, tetracycline or chloramphenicol) can cure most people infected with the bacteria.


Historic references


World War II (1939-1945) can be connected to the disease in history. Hungarian Jews were also deported to concentration camps. Typhus epidemics killed those people who were in POW (Prisoner-of-war) camps, ghettos, and Nazi concentration camps held in unhygienic conditions. Most of the Jews were transported from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hungarian and German authorities deported more than 430,000 people between the end of April and July of 1944. Other smaller groups were deported till the end of 1944. Many of them were killed in gas chambers right after they arrived. The other were transported to other camps - where hundreds of them died - or kept for work in Auschwitz. Because of the horrible living conditions and the cruel behaviour of the guards these people lost their ability to work and they were also killed. The Hungarians were the biggest group of victims in the biggest concentration camp. Typhus led to the death of tens of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners caused by bacteria transmitted by fleas that were parasitic to rodents, including rats and mice. Effective treatment with antibiotics was not available during World War II. Surviving the illness depended on the resistance of the organism; recovery without treatment may occur after about 4 weeks. Only the death of the SS head camp physician in May 1942 and numerous cases among the garrison forced the camp authorities to take preventive measures. These measures included mass selection for the gas chambers of people with symptoms of typhus, more frequent fumigation of clothing, the disinfection of barracks, and showers for prisoners. The typhus epidemic, however, was not brought under control until 1944.