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      Human Pathogens in Body and Head Lice

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          Using polymerase chain reaction and sequencing, we investigated the prevalence of Rickettsia prowazekii, Bartonella quintana, and Borrelia recurrentis in 841 body lice collected from various countries. We detected R. prowazekii in body lice from Burundi in 1997 and in lice from Burundi and Rwanda in 2001; B. quintana infections of body lice were widespread. We did not detect B. recurrentis in any lice.

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          Most cited references 16

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          The body louse as a vector of reemerging human diseases.

          The body louse, Pediculus humanus humanus, is a strict human parasite, living and multiplying in clothing. Louse infestation is associated with cold weather and a lack of hygiene. Three pathogenic bacteria are transmitted by the body louse. Borrelia recurrentis is a spirochete, the agent of relapsing fever, recently cultured on axenic medium. Historically, massive outbreaks have occurred in Eurasia and Africa, but currently the disease is found only in Ethiopia and neighboring countries. Bartonella quintana is now recognized as an agent of bacillary angiomatosis bacteremia, trench fever, endocarditis, and chronic lymphadenopathy among the homeless. Rickettsia prowazekii is the agent of epidemic typhus. The most recent outbreak (and the largest since World War II) was observed in Burundi. A small outbreak was also reported in Russia in 1997. Louse infestation appears to become more prevalent worldwide, associated with a decline in social and hygienic conditions provoked by civil unrest and economic instability.
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            Natural history of Bartonella infections (an exception to Koch's postulate).

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              Outbreak of epidemic typhus associated with trench fever in Burundi.

              After a 12-year absence, epidemic typhus has re-emerged among the displaced population of Burundi. Following the outbreak of civil war in 1993, over 760000 people now inhabit refugee camps, under appalling conditions. A typhus outbreak occurred among prisoners in a jail in N'Gozi in 1995. At the time, the disease was not recognised, and was referred to as sutama. Reports of sutama among the civilian population date back to late 1995 and, in association with body-louse infestation, the disease has subsequently swept across the higher and colder regions of the country. During a field study in February, 1997, 102 refugees with sutama underwent clinical examination and interview. Serum samples were collected and infesting body lice removed. Microbiological analysis included antibody estimations and specific PCRs aimed at diagnosis of Rickettsia prowezekii, Bartonella quintana, and Borrelia recurrentis. Between January and September, 1997, nationwide epidemiological data on the prevalence and distribution of sutama was obtained through liaison with local health services. A second field study in March, 1997, entailed the collection of further serum samples from suspected cases of sutama in different regions of Burundi. Most of the 102 patients with sutama during initial assessment presented with manifestations similar to those previously described for typhus in Africa, though skin eruptions occurred in only 25 (25%) cases. Microbiological testing revealed evidence of R prowazeki infection in 76 (75%) patients, confirming that most cases of clinically-diagnosed sutama were epidemic typhus, and supporting the reliability of clinical diagnosis as a basis for the nationwide surveillance of the disease. Up to September, 1997, 45558 typhus cases were clinically diagnosed, most of which occurred in regions at an altitude of over 1500 m. Serological testing of 232 individuals from different regions of Burundi provided microbiological evidence to support clinical diagnoses in seven provinces, confirming the widespread nature of the outbreak. Serum from 13 of the original 102 patients and 19 (8%) of the 232 suspected cases had raised antibody titres against B quintana. A fatality rate of 15% among jail inmates fell to 0.5% after administration of a single dose of 200 mg doxycycline to suspected cases. A gigantic outbreak of R prowazekii-induced typhus and B quintana-induced trench fever is continuing in Burundi. Transmission of both diseases to such a large number of people has followed a widespread epidemic of body-louse infestation. Diagnosis of typhus could be reliably made by means of clinical criteria, and the disease could be efficiently and easily treated by antibiotics. This epidemic highlights the appalling conditions in central-African refugee camps and the failure of public-health programmes to serve their inhabitants. Louse-associated disease remains a major health threat in this and other war-torn regions of the world.

                Author and article information

                Emerg Infect Dis
                Emerging Infect. Dis
                Emerging Infectious Diseases
                Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
                December 2002
                : 8
                : 12
                : 1515-1518
                [* ]Université des la Méditerranée, Marseille Cedex, France
                []Centre Hospitalier Universitaire, Bujumbura, Burundi
                []Médecins sans frontière, Marseille, France
                [§ ]Ross University, St. Kitts, West Indies
                Author notes
                Address for correspondence: Didier Raoult, Unité des Rickettsies, CNRS UMR 6020, IFR 48, Faculté de Médecine, Université des la Méditerranée, 13385 Marseille Cedex, France; fax:; e-mail: Didier.Raoult@


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