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Epidemic Typhus: Its Impact on War during the late 15th and 17th Century

Published Saturday, October 20, 2007

Typhus is a group of acute infectious diseases caused by rickettsiae (microorganisms classified as an intermediate in size between bacteria and viruses) that are transmitted by arthropods (lice, fleas, mites). There are two principal forms of typhus: Endemic typhus (alternative names - Flea-borne typhus, Murine typhus, Rat typhus) and Epidemic typhus ( alternative names - Classic epidemic typhus, Human typhus, Louse-borne typhus). The disease agent for Endemic typhus is Rickettsia mooseri and for Epidemic typhus is Rickettsia prowazekii. Epidemic typhus (Louse-borne typhus) is transmitted by the body louse (Pediculus humanus) through their bites to humans and also from infected humans to louse. Epidemic typhus on the other hand, is a disease of humans and lice. It occurs mainly in temperate countries in crowded, unsanitary conditions where people don’t bathe themselves or wash their clothing. As such, people in communities especially during the cold climate are in close living conditions to keep themselves warm thus, encouraging and maintaining the spreading of lice living among humans.

Since humans are the host in epidemic typhus, this means that the conditions of war are ideal for typhus to explode into a raging epidemic disease which has been known historically to be a major killer in wartime. Typically in wars, diseases such as Typhus spreads rapidly amongst soldiers and the reasons for this is that there are usually forced to live in poor hygienic conditions (infrequent bathing and changing of clothes), mass migrations of troops (simultaneously moving in large numbers), crowding (that leads to close personal contact), inadequate housing (make shift houses), poverty (poor army maintenance) and malnutrition (undernourishment) all of which encourages the spreading of typhus more easily. Epidemic typhus is therefore a disease of war, as well as, one of famine and overcrowding. Epidemic typhus carries a large list of names that it is known by. Some of these names are: War Fever or Frebris Militarius, Camp Fever, Famine Fever, Gaol Fever, Jail Fever, Ship Fever, Spotted Fever, or el tabarillo (Spanish, red cloak), Sharp Fever, Epidemic Fever, Putrid Fever, Fourteen Day Fever, Malignant Fever, Petechial Fever, Spotted Ague, Exanthematique (French), Morbis Hungaricus, Matlazahuatl (Mexican Indian), just to name a few!

The epidemic typhus infects humans of all ages and occurs in the blood in the first day of the infection which, eventually spreads over the entire body. The incubation period is between 5 to 14 days after the first symptoms of the disease. The diseases’ typical symptoms is characterized by shivering and rigour (chills), high fever, severe headache, nausea, vomiting, transient rash, running nose, cough, malaise, stupor, constipation, and pain in the chest, back and limbs. Rash usually appears after 4 or 5 days on the trunk, the wrist or the shoulders, and under the armpit. Rash does not appear on the face or neck. The disease last between 2 - 2 ½ weeks. The patient’s fever usually disappears after 14 days provided they are no complications. A second attack of the disease is rare since the body builds an immunity for the disease. However, the disease can re-emerge in the individual that is, relapses may occur. When this occurs, it is usually known as Brill-Zinsser Disease.

Epidemic typhus for centuries have been associated with war where it is a major killer. Thus, this makes it a war disease - an important factor affecting the outcome of wars. In the 15th century Epidemic typhus made it first major appearance in Spain in 1489 during the Spanish siege of Moorish Granada which, is said to be brought in from the Eastern Mediterranean. During the war, the Spanish which had an army of 25,000 soldiers laid siege to the city by barricading the Moors inside their stronghold at Granada while suffering a lost of 3,000 men to their enemy. This outcome they hoped, would quickly bring the war campaign to a successfully end and, as a result, remove the Moslem influence on the European continent. However, to the Spaniards dismay, they were stroke by a raging epidemic disease known as epidemic typhus (louse-borne typhus) which took over the army and killed 17,000 of their men (more than half the army) which was far more than the 3,000 that they lost to their enemy. This totally devastated the Spanish army where the remaining soldiers fled, bringing back the disease with them to Spain thus, introducing the disease to many parts throughout Europe. The Christian reconquest of Spain was eventually achieved in 1492 with the fall of Granada.

In the 17th century, the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 not surprisingly also had its share of the epidemic typhus which had its impact on wars during this era. War during this time period was a religious one among Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and also the rivalry between the Habsburg emperor and others (e.g. Danish, Dutch, France and Sweden). It consisted of a series of wars which raged for 30 years throughout central Europe. During this time epidemic typhus which was the dominant disease after 1630 partnered with plague where they ravaged all that came in their path. Two examples of typhus impact during this time period were: 1). Charles I, who had a superior army, was unable to march to London from his palace at Hampstead to crush the Earl of Exeter uprising due to an outbreak of typhus in his army. The second example 2); In 1632, as two armies - the Swedish king (Gustavos Adolphus) and the Catholic commander (Baron Von Wallenstein) - prepared to engage themselves in a major battle at Nuremburg, Germany, epidemic typhus stroke both armies. About 18,000 soldiers were killed on both sides from the disease and as a result of this, commanders of both armies quickly decided to withdraw their forces. Thus epidemic typhus prevented a war from taking place.

Related Articles:
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At 11:41 AM, Blogger The Phoenix said...
At 7:46 AM, Blogger R. Edmondson said...
At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...
At 12:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, typhus both kills and saves lives.

How weird.

You are right, very ironic and weird. However, based on the type of disease, its characteristics, how it is spread, the circumstances under which it unleashed it fury etc. it can be your ally or your foe. There are other circumstances in history where diseases and war intersect, saving and killing many lives in the process - which tends to worked out advantageous for the weaker military side. A blessing in disguised perhaps.

yo this is wierd!! ya dumb =]

I contracted Typhus on Maui in 2005... Absolutely horrible! Very nearly killed me & I am still still dealing with the aftermath, damage...


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