DDT Stopped Typhus In Naples: A Personal Look
    By Enrico Uva | September 24th 2012 01:02 AM | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

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    By 1972 the hamlets and villages of southern Italy had not been transformed by the economic miracle of the 1950s and 60s. At the age of 11, I visited a town near Naples named San Mango, my dad's birthplace, and my cousin who had gone there six months earlier had warned me. When the cab had dropped his family off, he had taken one look at the medieval homes, and he had run back in the direction of the airport. But I had promised my parents that I would suck it up.

    There were only two telephones and a pair of TV's in the village. Spider webs abounded under the dinner table, and my aunt cooked every meal from a fireplace.  Few homes had flush toilets, and to pee in the wee hours of the morning, I had to cross the street to use the bathroom in my uncle's semblance of a restaurant. But many of the village women were up shortly before sunrise, walking by the house, carrying the town's fountain water on their heads. Too embarrassed to be seen in my pyjamas, I once used the bedpan, but in the morning I had to contend with its smell and watch my aunt dump the contents from the bedroom window into the ravine.

    The village was built on a steep slope so while walking either uphill or downhill,  it was difficult  to sidestep donkey dung. Breakfast consisted of either unpasteurized goat's milk or the local bar's equally undrinkable ultra heated milk with small, brick-like toasts. After a few days of relying on unused jelly from our flight over, there was nothing we could use as spread. After two weeks, my feet became infected with an aggressive fungus, but at least the doctor in town had a real medical degree and was stocked with a supply of authentic drugs. In fact all my complaints were petty relative to what the village had endured only thirty years earlier.

    During the Second World War, for instance, my grandmother had not been so lucky. My grandfather who had come to the U.S. at the age of 4 through Ellis Island had spent his childhood and adolescence in Boston's North End and in industrial towns along Connecticut's Long Island Sound.  But after his engagement to a schoolteacher went sour, he made the odd decision to move back to San Mango. He married someone 10 years younger, and they had 9 children. 

    There are different forms of typhus. The one that struck the Naples region during World War II was caused by a tiny bacteria Rickettsia prowazekii, and its vector was the human body louse Pediculus humanus. Not surprisingly the Italian word for lice, pidocchi (piducchi in Neapolitain dialect) resembles the name of the genus. The wingless bloodsucking insects were common in ships and overcrowded dwellings, and they were associated with water shortages and long laundry cycles. The disease itself was probably brought to the region from Sicily and Northern Africa by soldiers. Epidemics had first struck Yugoslavian and Tunisian prisoners.

    By the time the Allies arrived on October 1, 1943, the Naples epidemic was gaining momentum. In the previous year, Germans had destroyed the city's water and sewer systems, and much of the population had been forced to live in bomb shelters, conditions conducive to typhus.  My older aunts recall my grandmother's high fever, skin eruptions from the shoulders and severe headaches. At least one of them had been previously infected. Antibiotics are effective against typhus, but there were was a shortage of sulfa drugs in town--penicillin was mass- produced and distributed to the army only in the following year. She decided to share her antibiotics with two of her infected relatives while receiving the ineffective, medieval treatment of bloodletting with leeches.  

    On November 19, 1943, she succumbed to the disease at the age of 37. Ironically, less than a month after her death, the Allies started to dust over 3 million Italians in the region with DDT(dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) to destroy the lice. By midwinter the epidemic had been halted, but to prevent a comeback of typhus' vector, they appropriately continued to spray until May 31, 1944. It marked the first time in history that direct action was used to stop typhus. Its ominous track record had included hundreds of thousands of victims in the Thirty Years War; the virtual extermination of the Miniak Indians in the 1700's and many of Napoleon's 600 000 troops in Russia. DDT arrived too late for my grandmother, but it saved thousands of other lives and possibly those of her children.


    Encyclopedia of Medical History. Roderick McGrew. McGraw Hill. 1985 
    The Merck Manual. Sixteenth Edition.
    The Historical Impact OF Epidemic Typhus

    Rickettsia image source:
    Louse: public domain