Epidemic typhus, also known as louse-borne typhus, is a form of typhus so named because the disease often causes epidemics following wars and natural disasters where civil life is disrupted. Epidemic typhus is spread to people through contact with infected body lice, in contrast to endemic typhus which is usually transmitted by fleas.
Though typhus has been responsible for millions of deaths throughout history, it is still considered a rare disease that occurs mainly in populations that suffer unhygienic extreme overcrowding. Typhus is most rare in industrialized countries. It occurs primarily in the colder, mountainous regions of central and east Africa, as well as Central and South America. The causative organism is Rickettsia prowazekii, transmitted by the human body louse (Pediculus humanus corporis). Untreated typhus cases have a fatality rate of approximately 40%.
Epidemic typhus should not be confused with murine typhus, which more endemic to the United States, particularly Southern California and Texas. This form of typhus has similar symptoms but is caused by Rickettsia typhi, is less deadly, and has different vectors for transmission.