Scrub typhus is an infectious disease that is transmitted to humans from field mice and rats through the bite of mites that live on the animals. The main symptoms of the disease are fever, a wound at the site of the bite, a spotted rash on the trunk, and swelling of the lymph glands.
Scrub typhus is caused by Rickettsia tsutsugamushi, a tiny parasite about the size of bacteria that belongs to the family Rickettsiaceae. Under the microscope, rickettsiae are either rod-like (bacilli) or spherical (cocci) in shape. Because they are intracellular parasites, they can live only within the cells of other animals.
R. tsutsugamushi lives primarily in mites that belong to the species Leptotrombidium (Trombicula) akamushi and Leptotrombidium deliense. In Japan, some cases of scrub typhus have been reportedly transmitted by mites of the species Leptotrombidium scutellare and Leptotrombidium pallidum. The mites have four-stage life cycles: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. The larva is the only stage that can transmit the disease to humans and other vertebrates.
The tiny chiggers (mite larvae) attach themselves to the skin. During the process of obtaining a meal, they may either acquire the infection from the host or transmit the rickettsiae to other mammals or humans. In regions where scrub typhus is a constant threat, a natural cycle of R. tsutsugamushi transmission occurs between mite larvae and
Scrub typhus is also known as tsutsugamushi disease. The name tsutsugamushi is derived from two Japanese words: tsutsuga, meaning something small and dangerous, and mushi, meaning creature. The infection is called scrub typhus because it generally occurs after exposure to areas with secondary (scrub) vegetation. It has recently been found, however, that the disease can also be prevalent in such areas as sandy beaches, mountain deserts, and equatorial rain forests. Therefore, it has been suggested that the names mite-borne typhus, or chigger-borne typhus, are more appropriate. Since the disease is limited to eastern and southeastern Asia, India, northern Australia and the adjacent islands, it is also commonly referred to as tropical typhus.
The seasonal occurrence of scrub typhus varies with the climate in different countries. It occurs more frequently during the rainy season. Certain areas such as forest clearings, riverbanks, and grassy regions provide optimal conditions for the infected mites to thrive. These small geographic regions are high-risk areas for humans and have been called scrub-typhus islands.
Causes and symptoms
The incubation period of scrub typhus is about 10 to 12 days after the initial bite. The illness begins rather suddenly with shaking chills, fever, severe headache, infection of the mucous membrane lining the eyes (the conjunctiva), and swelling of the lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy). A wound (lesion) is often seen at the site of the chigger bite. Bite wounds are common in whites but rare in Asians.
The initial lesion, which is about 0.4 in (1 cm) in diameter and flat, eventually becomes elevated and filled with fluid. After it ruptures, it becomes covered with a black scab (eschar). The patient's fever rises during the first week, generally reaching 40–40.5°C (104–105°F). About the fifth day of fever, a red spotted rash develops on the trunk, often extending to the arms and legs. It may either fade away in a few days or may become spotted and elevated (maculopapular) and brightly colored. Cough is present during the first week of the fever. An infection of the lung (pneumonitis) may develop during the second week.
In severe cases, the patient's pulse rate increases and blood pressure drops. The patient may become delirious and lose consciousness. Muscular twitching may develop. Enlargement of the spleen is observed. Inflammation of the heart muscle (interstitial myocarditis) is more common in scrub typhus than in other rickettsial diseases. In untreated patients, high fever may last for more than two weeks. With specific therapy, however, the fever breaks within 36 hours. The patient's recovery is prompt and uneventful.
Patient history and physical examination
Differentiating scrub typhus from other forms of typhus as well as from fever, typhoid and meningococcal infections is often difficult during the first several days before the initial rash appears. The geographical location of scrub typhus, the initial sore caused by the chigger bite, and the occurrence of specific proteins capable of destroying the organism (antibodies) in the blood, provide helpful clues and are useful in establishing the diagnosis.
Diagnostic procedures involving the actual isolation of rickettsiae from the blood or other body tissues are usually expensive, time-consuming, and hazardous to laboratory workers. As a result, several types of tests known as serological (immunological) tests are used widely to confirm the clinical diagnosis in the laboratory.
Specific antibodies develop in the body in response to an infection. The development of antibodies during the recovery period indicates that an immune response is present. The formation of antibodies is the basic principle of a serological test. Three different tests are available to diagnose rickettsial infections. The most widely used is the Weil-Felix test. This test is based on the fact that some of the antibodies that are formed in the body during a rickettsial infection can react with certain strains (OX-2 and OX-19) of Proteus bacteria and cause them to clump (agglutinate). The clumping is easily seen under the microscope. The Weil-Felix test is easy and inexpensive to perform, with the result that it is widely used. The Weil-Felix test, however, is not very specific. In addition, the clumping is not detectable until the second week of the illness, which limits the test's usefulness in early diagnosis.
A second test known as a complement fixation (CF) test is based on the principle that if antibodies are formed in the body in response to the illness, then the antigen and the antibody will form complexes. These antigen-antibody complexes have the ability to inactivate, or fix, a protein that is found in blood serum (serum complement). The serum complement fixation can be measured using standardized biochemical tests and confirms the presence of antibodies. A third test known as the fluorescent antibody test uses fluorescent tags that are attached to antibodies for easy detection. This test has been developed using three strains of Rickettsia tsutsugamushi and has proven to be the most specific for diagnosis.
Scrub typhus is treated with antibiotics. Chloramphenicol (Chloromycetin, Fenicol) and tetracycline (Achromycin, Tetracyn) are the drugs of choice. They bring about prompt disappearance of the fever and dramatic clinical improvement. If the antibiotic treatment is discontinued too quickly, especially in patients treated within the first few days of the fever, relapses may occur. In patients treated in the second week of illness, the antibiotics may be stopped one to two days after the fever disappears.
Antibiotics are given intravenously to patients too sick to take them by mouth. Patients who are severely ill and whose treatment was delayed may be given corticosteroids in combination with antibiotics for three days.
Before the use of antibiotics, the mortality rate for scrub typhus varied from 1–60%, depending on the geographic area and the rickettsial strain. Recovery also took a long time. With modern treatment methods, however, deaths are rare and the recovery period is short.
As of 1998, there are no effective vaccines for scrub typhus. In endemic areas, precautions include wearing protective clothing. Insect repellents containing dibutyl phthalate, benzyl benzoate, diethyl toluamide, and other substances can be applied to the skin and clothing to prevent chigger bites. Clearing of vegetation and chemical treatment of the soil may help to break up the cycle of transmission from chiggers to humans to other chiggers.
Prophylactic antibiotic dosage
It has been shown that a single oral dose of chloramphenicol or tetracycline given every 5 days for a total of 35 days, with 5-day nontreatment intervals, actually produces active immunity to scrub typhus. This procedure is recommended under special circumstances in certain areas where the disease is endemic.
Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, ed. Robert Berkow, et al. Rahway, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 1992.
"Rickettsial Infections." In Merck Manual of Medical Information: Home Edition, ed. Robert Berkow, et al. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 1997.
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. Ed. Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
Zinsser, Hans. Zinsser Microbiology. 19th ed. Ed. Wolfgang K. Joklik, et al. Stamford: Appleton Lange, 1988.
Lata Cherath, PhD
Endemic area—A geographical region where a particular disease is prevalent.
Eschar—A hard crust or scab. In scrub typhus, an eschar forms over the initial sore from the chigger bite.
Intracellular parasite—An organism which can only feed and live within the cell of a different animal.
Maculopapular rash—A rash characterized by raised, spotted lesions.
Prophylactic dosage—Giving medications to prevent or protect against diseases.
Rickettsia—A rod-shaped infectious microorganism that can reproduce only inside a living cell. Scrub typhus is a rickettsial disease.
Serological tests—Tests of immune function that are performed using the clear yellow liquid part of blood.