While Lyme might be the most prominent vector-borne disease, it’s certainly not the only dangerous one. Lyme is spread exclusively by certain species of ticks, but “vector-borne” refers not only to ticks but also lice, mites, and fleas. There are numerous disorders that can be transmitted through contact with any of these creatures. One of the major problems in diagnosing these disorders is that they all present with similar symptoms in the early stages.
Typhus is one of the oldest recorded vector-borne diseases out there; the earliest mention of it that we have to date is 1528 AD, but it’s probably been around since before then. Testing and correctly diagnosing vector-borne diseases is critical to successful treatment. So when it comes to this indelible disorder, exactly how is typhus diagnosed?
What Is Typhus?
Before we investigate the diagnostic methods, let’s define the ancient disease. The name “typhus” is in fact a collective term used to describe a group of infectious diseases. The word comes from the Greek “tûphos”, which means “hazy”. This is no doubt in reference to the mental haziness that comes with infection. The members of the typhus group include epidemic typhus, scrub typhus, and murine typhus. The most important and prevalent of these three subsets is epidemic typhus.
The onset of typhus is sudden; fever is often the first symptom, followed by other flu-like symptoms over the next two weeks. Five to nine days after the initial symptoms start, a rash appears on the torso and slowly spreads to the arms and legs, until most of the body is covered by it. This can be accompanied by a sensitivity to light, severe headache, and constant muscle pain.
Epidemic typhus is caused by the rickettsia genus of bacteria – the type responsible for many other vector-borne diseases in humans, including the deadly Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, among others. If typhus is not treated promptly, it can lead to serious complications and eventually death in some cases.
How Do You Test for Typhus?
As the complications of typhus can be severe, accurate diagnosis is critical. Testing for typhus involves a five-step process. Not all of these methods may be required for conclusive diagnosis, but all are available to doctors. Because typhus initially resembles other diseases including dengue, malaria, and brucellosis, medical professionals have to be sure they know what they’re dealing with.
The first stage is conversational: your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and your medical history. Particularly any recent journeys abroad, or any known outbreak of typhus in your community. It’s worth remembering that typhus is relatively rare in the United States. It is historically caught outside the country and brought back in.
The second option for diagnosis is a skin biopsy. A skin sample will be taken from you and sent off for diagnosis in a lab. The rash that accompanies typhus is a significant and enduring symptom. However, a rash is a very generalized symptom that manifests with a lot of diseases. In the case of a disease like Lyme, the rash presents in a distinctive and unique bullseye pattern, making a biopsy irrelevant. With typhus, however, it can be a valuable diagnostic tool.
A Western Blot test is the next option. This widely used analytical technique has many utilities and is often turned to for disease diagnosis. It detects specific protein molecules from among a mix of different proteins, including all of the proteins associated with a specific tissue or cell variant. Through serum samples from the patient, a lab is able to tell whether certain proteins that indicate typhus are present.
The fourth option is called an immunofluorescence test. This method utilizes dyes to detect typhus antigens in samples of serum extracted from the blood. Antigens are created by the immune system as they fight off viral and bacterial invaders. Testing for specific antigens can be quite effective in diagnosing vector-borne diseases.
Infectolab Americas and BCA-clinic in Germany recently supported the development of a new ELISpot blood test, due to be released in January 2020. This is specifically designed to test for the antigens of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. The ELISpot tests for molecules from both attacking T-cells and memory T-cells, a unique innovation that helps give doctors a clearer picture of the stage a patient is at with the disease. Although RMSF is not classified as a typhus disorder, it is caused by rickettsia, the same genus of bacteria which causes epidemic typhus.
The fifth and final option to test for typhus are other assorted blood tests, which may help to identify and confirm the presence of an infection in the body. Once these tests are completed, doctors should have a pretty clear idea if they are dealing with typhus or something similar. The antibiotics most commonly used to treat typhus are doxycycline, chloramphenicol, and ciprofloxacin.
How Can You Protect Yourself from Typhus?
Is typhus contagious? And how can you protect yourself from typhus? The good news is that typhus is not contagious from person-to-person contact. However, if you reside in or visit an area with an active typhus outbreak, there is a high chance you could catch it, as the disease is spread by fleas and lice. Typhus outbreaks are often quite hard to control for this reason.
As of 2019, despite the disease being known to humans for centuries, there is still no known cure. To prevent exposure, you should do your best to avoid contact with fleas and be aware of fleas around the home and on your pets. If you do suspect typhus, don’t panic; just see a doctor right away. It’s important to keep in mind that, like most vector-borne diseases, full recovery is almost 100% assured if the infection is eradicated early on.