By tucking themselves away in the corners of beds and the folds of clothes, insects have long evolved alongside humans. Mites, ticks, fleas, bedbugs, lice—they all feast happily on blood, leaving humans with the itchy, irritating aftermath. In the first half of the twentieth century, rural parasitic insects gained a foothold in the largely agriculture-based population in Mexico.
This rise in insects as vectors of disease was not by coincidence. The country suffered from long droughts throughout the early twentieth century, leading to an increase in the parasite population.1 Among the parasites, the simple louse ravaged the countryside with typhus in central Mexico through recurring epidemics.
The era became part of family memory, even as migration to the cities grew exponentially after the 1950s. Grandmothers and great-aunts whisper of the “época del tifo,” or “the era of typhus.” Older Mexican women recall the threat of losing their braids in the name of preventative measures as many rural schools attempted to contain vectors by shaving students’ heads. The onset of typhus in early twentieth-century central Mexico reveals both the effects of climate on a vulnerable population and how disease influences constructions of gender.
If disease is the enemy, then we need to understand our foe. Typhus rears its head in wars, famine, and natural disasters. The disease belongs to a particular microbe family called rickettsia. Somewhere between a virus and bacteria, the microorganism that spawns epidemic typhus flows in the blood of rats, mice, and humans. It stows away in the bellies of insect vectors after they have feasted on infected mammals and then goes on to seek new hosts. The variations in the rickettsia strain depend largely on the vector. Mites from mice introduce scrub typhus in humans; endemic typhus comes from the rat flea; and ticks carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever.2
Most commonly, humans contract typhus from lice (Phthiraptera Anoplura), which feed primarily on mammals. These parasites sometimes carry the strain rickettsia prowazekii, named after co-discoverer (and victim) Stanislaus Prowazek (1875-1915). When lice bite an infected person, they ingest the rickettsia microorganism from the bloodstream. Upon finding a new host, a louse bites its new victim, causing them to scratch. The voracious scratching turns red and inflamed, leading to more scratching. Inevitably, small breaks in the skin expose blood and tissue to the parasite. The louse then defecates live typhus strains in the open wound, which spread the disease into the bloodstream.3 Rickettsia prowazekii reaches epidemic status as the infected host carries lice into population centers.4
Early symptoms of typhus seem like a severe flu, with high temperature, weakness in the limbs, achy joints, and headache. Soon, the infected person develops a rash on the torso, which then spreads to the limbs. They quickly develop a severe headache that signals the onset of meningoencephalitis, or the inflammation of the meninges lining between the skull and brain.5 Mercifully, the patient succumbs to the disease soon after.
Historically, typhus struck crowded urban centers. However, during the Porfiriato (1876-1910), typhus targeted the rural Mexican population. During the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, peasants, rural farmers, and indigenous populations lost access to land, forcing a concentration of this population on haciendas, or plantation-style estates. Haciendas controlled workers through debt peonage, and workers were typically housed in packed quarters in the nearby company of horses, mules, and cattle.
Harvests dwindled in the late nineteenth century with extensive droughts. Many animals died as crops failed and streams shrank. Workers, meanwhile, struggled with meager rations. In states such as Zacatecas in central Mexico, itinerant laborers moved to pursue diverse economic opportunities in mining, in cities, and in agriculture, creating a roving population.
Without domesticated animals to feed on, the lice traveled with their moveable feasts across various regions, carrying the disease into congested cities. Because Mexico experienced a series of droughts in the first half of the twentieth century, “the era of typhus” shaped several generations of Mexicans from the country’s central region.
In order to prevent the spread of disease, city governments circulated edicts on cleanliness and containment. City officials in Zacatecas advised shaking out domestic furnishings and a healthy dusting of carbolic acid in homes. In 1892, local politician Atenógenes Llamas of Zacatecas suggested via flyer that locals in the state capital should spray their homes first with sulfuric acid and then carbolic acid in order to eliminate the pesky pests.6
The government intervention extended to the public sphere as well. Teams of engineers and doctors inspected barns and ordered public latrines scrubbed and disinfected. Soon, neighbors reported on other neighbors and their slovenly habits.
The prevention of lice reached schoolchildren, who were often the most vulnerable victims of typhus because of the close quarters in schoolhouses. Public health officials often encouraged students and parents to participate in the pelada, or headshaving, during school hours. The ominous ritual involved a gathering of students where they had their heads shaved by teachers or volunteers. When officials suspected the arrival of typhus in the community, they forced school children to undergo the process, regardless of gender.
The elimination of hair gave rise to unique constructions of gender. Girls suddenly lost their trenzas, or braids, often a symbol of femininity. In most schools, girls managed to escape with a bob haircut. Boys often underwent a complete shave, which created a degree of solidarity among them. Meanwhile, the government happily used schoolchildren as part of a national health campaign against typhus in the hopes of highlighting their efforts to combat the disease.
The cycle of drought that damaged agricultural production added to the recurrence of typhus in Mexico. The intersection of climate and disease holds startling implications as the planet warms. A recent pervasive drought in Mexico has raised questions regarding typhus, but the disease has largely been controlled. While antibiotics now cure typhus, this disease will re-emerge in countries not prepared for drought or in cities facing overcrowding.
However, climate does not recognize borders. The drought that has affected Mexico for the last decade has spread northward to Texas. With drought, typhus has arrived and has found a foothold in the state’s flea population in late 2017, according to the Dallas Morning News. Indeed, this strain of rickettsia typhi offers public health specialists and climate experts an opportunity to learn from past epidemics and to better prepare for the future.
- David Stahle, Jordan Burns, Rodolfo Acuña, “Drought and Epidemic Typhus, Central Mexico, 1655-1918,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 20, no. 3 (March 2014): 442-447. Return to text.
- Roderick McGrew, Encyclopedia of Medical History (New York: McGraw Hill, 1985), 350. Return to text.
- Ibid, 350. Return to text.
- Ibid, 351. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Circular from Atenógenes Llamas (October 21, 1892), Archivo Municipal de Zacatecas, Serie Jefatura Política, Subserie Impresos, Caja 1 (1853-1898), Exp. 39. Return to text.