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FAQs - "B" Agents

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Typhus Fever

What is typhus fever?

Typhus fever is a potentially fatal, infectious disease caused by the bacterium Rickettsia prowazekii. Also known as epidemic typhus, this disease is transmitted to humans by body lice. Though it has occurred on all continents throughout the world except Australia, typhus fever is not common in the United States.

Who gets typhus fever?

Anyone can get typhus fever, though it is most likely to occur among people living in overcrowded, dirty conditions, with few opportunities to wash themselves or their clothing. As a result typhus fever often occurs when cold weather, poverty, war, and other disasters result in close living conditions where body lice can thrive and spread.

How is typhus fever transmitted?

Typhus fever is transmitted by body lice, which become contagious by feeding on the blood of infected humans. The lice then defecate will feeding on another person and the feces, which contains the typhus fever bacteria, can get rubbed into small wounds such as those caused by scratching lice-infected areas. It is the feces, not the bite of the louse that transmits the illness to humans. It is also possible to become infected through contact with the mucous membranes of the mouth and eyes or by inhaling the dust of dried lice feces. Typhus fever is not spread directly from person-to-person.

Could terrorists use typhus fever?

Typhus fever is considered dangerous and could be used as a biological weapon. However, because it would be difficult to deliver and easy to treat it is not considered a very likely agent.

What are the symptoms of typhus fever?

Symptoms of typhus fever will usually appear within one to two weeks after exposure. Common symptoms include fever, headache, weakness, and muscle aches. Typhus fever also causes a rash composed of both spots and bumps. The rash starts on the back, chest, and stomach, then spreads to the arms and legs. The worst types of complications involve infection in the heart muscle (myocarditis) or brain (encephalitis).

Is typhus fever fatal?

Most people do not die from typhus fever. Patients usually recover with early detection and treatment. However, if left untreated, the death rate can be as high as 10 to 40 percent.

How is typhus fever diagnosed?

Typhus fever is usually diagnosed through blood tests. The organism can also be identified in tissue samples.

Is there treatment for typhus fever?

Effective treatment is possible with antibiotics such as doxycycline, chloramphenicol., or ciprofloxacin.

Find the PDF version of this FAQ in the Zebra Manual.