Epidemic Typhus

It’s December and I’ve got my first cold of the season—one of the hazards of working with kids, or winter—or both. My remedy?  Lemon tea and leek soup.

It wasn’t that simple for the people living in barracks during the cruel conditions of the Nazi and Soviet times. (And those times weren’t all that long ago!)

One horrible sickness that raged through the camps was typhus. It’s killed more people than guns or bombs ever did. Typhus thrives in filthy, over-crowded places like jails and barracks. The disease is carried by body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus). Now there are vaccines and antibiotics available as well as DDT to kill the bugs. Preventing the conditions for the lice to breed is the best way to avoid this killer epidemic.

The Soviets created a biological weapon using typhus in the 1930s, but they never used it. Didn’t need to, the lice proliferated on their own. The Communists claimed that the Nazis deliberately left lice-ridden typhus victims behind in Stalingrad to infect the Soviet soldiers. At the end of the Second World War Americans sent over hundreds of gallons of DDT to control typhus.

How do you know you have typhus? About ten days after a bite you get flu-like symptoms. Fever, chills, headache, loss of appetite. A few days in, you get the dreaded rash. Without treatment you become delirious and can die, up to three weeks later.

Back in the 19th century typhus helped Napoleon lose his war, It also killed many civilians during the Irish Potato Famine. Then in the early 20th century it was discovered that simply having hot baths could stop the disease from spreading.

Unfortunately, hot baths were not common during the first and second world wars and the infected lice flourished. It was typhus that killed Anne Frank and it was typhus that killed my grandmother. Just a tiny little bug that could have been washed away, but it had the power to kill. My mom told of how, while a POW in Russia after the war, she saw a sweater move on its own with the help of thousands of crawling lice. Sounds creepier than zombies or vampires.

We’ve come a long way since then. Let’s keep going. Where would we be without the antibiotics and vaccines that we now take for granted? So while I’m sniffling, I’m grateful that it’s just an ordinary cold, that I’m in Canada, and that it’s 2016. Ha…ha…choo!

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