Typhus fever is an infectious disease that was considered a significant public health threat in most populated regions of the world prior to the 20th century. According to the World Health Organization, the disease is relatively rare these days, as only 1 in 5 million people fall ill from typhus fever worldwide each year. To be precise, typhus fever comprises three distinct infectious diseases, each of which is normally associated with a particular arthropod. These diseases are known as epidemic typhus, scrub typhus and murine typhus. Scrub typhus is spread by chiggers and murine typhus is spread by fleas. Epidemic typhus spreads rapidly within dense populations by means of body lice, making this form of typhus the deadliest, most widespread and most historically significant of the three types.
The most notable outbreak of epidemic typhus in the United States occurred in 1846, which is the same year that the Irish potato famine occured. These two events share a causal relationship, as the disease was transported to the US by starving Irish immigrants who were escaping their impoverished conditions back home. Prior to this American epidemic in 1846, a smaller-scale typhus outbreak occurred a decade prior in Philadelphia. This outbreak was found to have originated within an impoverished Irish community. Since many longtime American citizens felt threatened by the rapid spread of the disease via body lice, anti-Irish sentiment became common in the northeast US. By the time the massive waves of Irish immigrants brought the diseased lice with them to the US, citizens of the US had already started to associate the disease with Irish populations.
Despite Americans’ fear of contracting diseased lice from nearby populations of Irish immigrants, typhus fever remained almost exclusively limited to the Irish immigrant population. For example, in just one New York hospital, 138 patients with typhus fever were admitted in just a one month period in 1847, but only five of these patients were regular American citizens. The same year, a New Orleans hospital accepted 1,045 typhus patients, only 9 percent of which were non-Irish immigrants. Unfortunately, New Orleans suffered epidemics of typhus after charitably treating Irish typhus victims in the city’s hospitals. A vaccine for typhus prevention does not exist, but antibiotic treatment is often sufficient to eradicate the disease in the rare cases when it occurs.
Do you fear that the United States could once again fall victim to disease-carrying insects transported into the country by immigrants?