What is the history of typhus?
One of the first written descriptions of the disease (probably of epidemic typhus) describing rash, sores, delirium, and about 17,000 deaths of Spanish troops was during the siege of Granada in 1489. Further descriptions over time termed the disease gaol or jail fever. In 1759, English authorities estimated about 25% of all prisoners in England died of gaol fever per year. In 1760, the disease was named typhus, from the Greek smoke or stupor because of the symptom of delirium that can develop. Many typhus epidemics raged throughout Europe for several centuries and were often related to poor living conditions brought about by wars. For example, some historians estimate more of Napoleon's troops were killed by typhus than by Russian soldiers during their retreat from Moscow in 1812. Ireland and the Americas recorded several epidemics. In the 1830s, over 100,000 Irish died from outbreaks. In the U.S. between 1837 and 1873, outbreaks were recorded in Philadelphia, Concord, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.
Henrique da Rocha Lima, a Brazilian doctor, discovered the cause of epidemic typhus in 1916 while doing research on typhus in Germany. However, still over 3 million deaths were attributed to typhus during and after World War I. Delousing stations were frequently set up to try to reduce the rate of typhus infection and death among troops and civilians. Even though a typhus vaccine was developed before World War II, typhus epidemics continued, especially in German concentration camps during the Holocaust (Anne Frank died in a camp at age 15 from typhus). Eventually, DDT was used to kill lice at the end of World War II and only a few epidemics (Africa, Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Asia) have occurred since then. Because of toxicity, DDT has been banned in the U.S. since 1972.
Endemic typhus seems to be increasing or perhaps is being recognized and correctly diagnosed more often in the U.S. An example is the following: Although endemic typhus is usually found in cooler environments, in 2011, Travis County, Texas, (including Austin, Texas) was declared to be endemic for murine (endemic) typhus with 53 cases diagnosed. California also has endemic typhus. In 2018, Galveston County, Texas, reported 17 individuals with the disease -- the first time it was diagnosed there was 2012. Authorities suggest many more people may be infected but have not been diagnosed.