An experimental model of human body louse infection with Rickettsia typhi

Linda Houhamdi, Pierre Edouard Fournier, Rong Fang, Didier Raoult

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Murine (endemic) typhus caused by Rickettsia typhi, one of the most widely distributed arthropod-borne diseases, is transmitted to humans mainly by the oriental rat flea. The human body louse, Pediculus humanus corporis, has been suspected to have a role in the transmission of R. typhi to humans. To evaluate the potential role of Pediculus humanus corporis as a vector of murine typhus, we used R. typhi in an experimental model of human body louse infection previously used with R. prowazekii. A rabbit was made bacteremic by inoculating it with 2 × 106 plaque-forming units of R. typhi; it remained bacteremic for at least 59 hours. Two hundred body lice infected by feeding on the bacteremic rabbit were compared to 200 uninfected control lice. Each louse population was fed once a day on the abdomen of a seronegative rabbit. On day 8 post-infection, as a result of disruption of the gut cells and leakage of the blood meal into the hemolymph, four infected lice became bright red and died within four hours. The life span of infected lice was 20 days less than that of the controls. Infected lice did not transmit R. typhi to their progeny (eggs and larvae) as demonstrated by PCR amplification and cell culture. With an immunofluorescence assay, R. typhi was detected in feces from day 7 post-infection, and the organism remained viable in feces for up to 80 days as demonstrated by cell culture. From the 21st day post-infection, the rabbit used to feed the R. typhi - infected lice developed an immunoglobulin response with a titer of 1:50 increasing to 1:200 at the 42nd day post-infection. It showed no clinical signs of infection. The rabbit that was used to feed uninfected lice remained seronegative. Although body lice are not clearly identified vectors of R. typhi, it seems that under certain circumstances they could transmit R. typhi.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)617-627
Number of pages11
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
StatePublished - 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Arthropod
  • Experimental model of infection
  • Human body louse
  • Murine typhus
  • Pediculus humanus corporis
  • R. mooserii
  • Rabbit
  • Red louse
  • Rickettsia typhi
  • Vector

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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