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Insect-borne diseases

Worldwide, millions of people are affected directly by insect-borne diseases ranging from mild fevers that last a few days to debilitation, disfigurement, disabilities such as blindness, and death. One billion people a year are infected with vector-borne diseases, including from insects, and one sixth of illness and disability worldwide is due to these diseases, according to WHO.

In Australia a number of vector borne diseases are notifiable to the Department of Health, including infections caused by Barmah Forest virus, Chikungunya virus, Dengue virus, Flaviviruses, Japanese encephalitis virus, malaria, Ross River virus and West Nile virus. Mosquitoes are the main vectors for these. The most common of these vector borne diseases in Australia in 2017, by number of reported cases, were:

  • Ross River fever: 6,922
  • Dengue: 1,101
  • Barmah Forest fever: 449
  • Malaria: 359
  • Chikungunya: 99

Other insects such as house flies, fermentation flies and cockroaches, spread diseases through contamination of food products. These can impact a wide range of businesses including farms, food processors, retail stores, hotels, restaurants, bars and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Contamination through poor hygiene can result in economic and reputational loss, prosecution and even closure of a business.

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Disease transmission

Diseases can be transmitted by insects and arachnids actively, by biological activity, or passively by mechanical means:

  • biologically: the disease-causing organism is carried within the animal body where it multiplies, breeds or passes through a phase of its life cycle, before being delivered into a new host, usually by biting to feed on blood. In a few cases the microorganism is transferred by an insect defecating on the person’s skin or through the squashed bodies and rubbed into a bite or wound, or passed into the mouth, eyes or nose by contaminated hands.
  • mechanically: flies, cockroaches and beetles pick up the disease causing organisms by physical contact with filth, waste and contaminated materials, or feeding on it. The organism is then transmitted passively by faecal deposition, regurgitation, or carrying it on the outside of their bodies to surfaces and food products in the human environment.

Cockroaches and flies, such as house flies and blow flies, which are common around the human environment, do not bite but can be mechanical carriers of a large variety of pathogenic bacteria, fungi, moulds, parasitic worms (helminths), protozoans and viruses. In developing countries, especially, they can be present in large numbers in hospitals, food stores, houses, animal sheds and restaurants, and are major vectors of diarrhoea and dysentery-causing organisms such as Salmonella and Shigella species, including drug-resistant strains.

African tick bite fever

Vector: ticks: Amblyomma, Dermacentor and Rhipicephalus families

Organism: bacterium, Rickettsia africae

African tick bite fever is one of the many Rickettsial infections and occurs mainly in sub Saharan Africa and the West Indies.

The incubation period of the disease is from 5 to 7 days and symptoms include fever, headache, muscle soreness and a skin rash with a dark centre at the site of the bite. There is no vaccine to prevent it but it can be treated with antibiotics. The US CDC reports that it is a common cause of fever in travellers to South Africa.

African Trypanosomiasis/ Sleeping sickness

Tsetse fly

Vector: Tsetse fly, Glossina species, horse fly, Tabanidae

Organism: protozoa, Trypanosoma brucei subspecies gambiense and rhodesiense

The disease is only found in rural Africa, affecting mainly poor rural communities. It was brought under control in the 1960s but re-emerged in the 1970s as control measures were relaxed. The rates of infection have dropped drastically in the last 20 years from an estimated 300,000 to under 30,000, according to WHO, as a result of disease-control campaigns. In May 2015 WHO reported that the number of cases had dropped to 3800, its lowest level in 75 years. Control efforts still screen 2-3 million people a year in local health centres.

The tsetse fly lives in woodland, forest and vegetation. Both male and female feed on blood and seek a meal during daylight hours. Domestic and wild animal reservoirs play a major role in transmission of the disease.

There are two subspecies of the parasite that are found in different areas of Africa — East African sleeping sickness and West African sleeping sickness. Once in a human host, the protozoan first circulates and multiplies in the blood and lymph system, producing symptoms of fever, swollen lymph nodes and skin itching. It can then invade the brain and central nervous system, which causes headaches, drowsiness, and abnormal behaviour. It can lead to coma and death if not treated.

Amoebic dysentery

Vector: cockroaches, flies (mechanical transmission)

Organism: protozoa, Entamoeba histolytica

Insects are vectors of amoebic dysentery by mechanical transmission of the protozoa from direct contact with human faeces or contaminated products and surfaces. It is estimated that 50 million people are infected worldwide, but the majority of cases are asymptomatic, with only 10% showing disease symptoms.

The disease causes bloody diarrhoea, weight loss, fatigue and abdominal pain. The organism can invade the intestinal wall, producing ulceration. It can then pass into the blood stream and enter other organs, particularly the liver.


Horse fly

Vector: horse fly (Tabanidae), deer fly, house fly, blow fly (Chrysoma spp), mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti, A. taeniorhynchus) (mechanical transmission)

Organism: bacterium, Bacillus anthrax

Many types of biting and non-biting insects have been incriminated in spreading anthrax during outbreaks and also shown to spread it in controlled conditions. This can occur directly by carrying the bacteria from one animal to another or by feeding on carcasses then depositing faeces or vomit on plants that are then browsed by grazing animals. The dormant spore phase of anthrax can last for decades in soil, until ingested or inhaled by grazing animals, and then activated by the suitable conditions in the host.

Human infection has three routes of entry:

  • pulmonary — inhalation of spores mainly from infected animal hides and other animal products. Symptoms start as flu-like then pneumonia and respiratory collapse over several days. With treatment, fatality rates are around 45% (in the 2001 anthrax attacks in the US when spores were sent by post).
  • gastrointestinal — consumption of infected meat, causing severe diarrhoea, acute inflammation of the intestinal tract, vomiting of blood. Fatality rates are 25-60%.
  • cutaneous — spores enter through cuts in the skin when handling infected animals or animal products, causing skin ulcers. Without treatment fatality rates are about 20%.



Vector: cockroaches, house dust mites (Dermatophagoides farina, D. pteronyssinus, Euroglyphus maynei)

Organism: none known (allergic response)

Asthma is not caused by an infectious organism but by an allergic reaction to particles shed by organisms, mainly house dust mites and cockroaches. So it does not strictly come under vector-borne diseases. It is, however, of great significance to the health and economies of developed countries.

It is one of the most common chronic diseases of children and in the US is the leading cause of hospital admissions for children. The WHO estimates that 300m people have asthma worldwide, ranging from 1% in rural Africa to 7-20% in Europe and 25-40% in some cities of the US and Australia.

The main cause is house dust mites, which are arachnids less than one millimetre long that feed mainly on human skin scales. Pollen, spores of microorganisms, fungal mycelia and bacteria have also been found in the gut of house dust mites. They live in the small spaces provided by mattresses, carpets, duvets, pillows and furniture materials, whether natural or synthetic, as both provide ideal shelter.

The mites depend on a suitable relative humidity and temperature for survival, so heating, ventilation and moisture control in places that they inhabit affect their numbers. Optimal conditions are 25°C and 75% relative humidity, which allow development from egg to adult in about 25 days. D. farina can survive low humidity conditions by forming a ‘protonymph’ stage that is drought resistant. It is the most common species in regions with prolonged dry weather such as the US. In areas with higher humidity D. pteronyssinus and E. maynei are the most common.

The German cockroach is the main cockroach pest species, inhabiting human buildings on all continents except Antarctica, but needing the warm building (or ship) environment to survive in cold climates. It occurs especially in restaurants, hotels, hospitals, nursing homes and food processing facilities. Many studies have shown that exposure to cockroach allergens is associated with asthma.


Ixodes tick

Vector: ticks, Ixodes species

Organism: protozoa, Babesia spp.

Babesiosis is an uncommon but emerging disease caused by several species of Babesia protozoa. The main vectors are ticks of the genus Ixodes, but various species of voles and mice or deer are required as intermediate hosts to complete the lifecycle. It has long been known to affect cattle and was only identified in humans in the 1950s.

It occurs mainly in northeastern US and temperate regions of Europe. In most cases there are no symptoms or mild flu-like symptoms, but in people with weakened immune systems it can become more severe or even fatal.

Barmah Forest fever

Vector: mosquitoes, including Aedes vigilax, Culex annulirostris

Organism: virus: Alphavirus

The disease has only been found in Australia and is named after the Barmah Forest in Victoria, where it was discovered in 1974. It has since spread from there to coastal areas of New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. It is a notifiable disease in Australia.

The virus is only transmitted by a bite from infected mosquitoes, which are infected by feeding on host animals, mainly marsupials including possums, kangaroos and wallabies.

The symptoms of Barmah forest virus infection include fever rash, joint and muscle pain. The fever usually lasts up to a week, while joint pain may last for six months or longer. There is no specific treatment for the virus.


Fleas are one of the main insects that can transmit bartonellosis

Vectors: fleas, body louse, sand flies (Phlebotomus spp, Lutzomyia spp), ticks, mosquitoes

Organism: bacterium, Bartonella spp

Bartonella species of bacteria are responsible for a number of diseases including:

Trench fever

Trench fever is caused by Bartonella quintana, the disease is spread by the human body louse. It is notorious for affecting large numbers of troops during the First World War — over one-fifth of British, German and Austrian troops reporting ill had trench fever. It is present around the world, with cases reported in Europe, North America, Africa and China. Symptoms include fever, headache, rash, and bone pain, mainly in the shins, neck, and back.

Cat-scratch disease

This is caused by several Bartonella species and as its name suggests it can be transmitted by a scratch from a cat that has been infected by cat fleas carrying the bacteria. It is most common in kittens and children. Symptoms include heart inflammation (endocarditis, myocarditis) and eye disease (neuroretinitis). It is also thought to be spread by flea or tick bites.

Carrión's disease

Carrión's disease is confined to higher elevations in western South America and is spread by Lutzomyia sandfly bites. It produces two distinct phases, a fever termed Oroya fever (originally thought to be a separate disease), and skin lesions that tend to bleed. It is named after a Peruvian medical student who infected himself with the disease in 1885 to record its progression and subsequently died from it.

Chagas disease/ American trypanosomiasis

Assassin bug, Rhynocoris iracundus

Vector: Triatomine bugs: Triatominae subfamily of Assassin Bugs/ Kissing bugs. Mainly Triatoma spp, Rhodnius spp

Organism: protozoa: Trypanosoma cruzi

There are 150 species of the bug and more than 100 species of mammal carry the protozoan parasite. It is classified by WHO as a neglected tropical disease, with 8 million people infected, mainly in central and South America, and an estimated 10,000 deaths caused by complications from the disease.

Both the male and female adults and nymphs are blood sucking so search human hosts to feed on, especially exposed areas such as the face. However, they carry the parasite in their faeces which is deposited onto the skin after feeding. When a person inadvertently wipes their contaminated skin this can carry the protozoan into the bite, other broken skin, or the eyes and mouth. It can also be spread through blood transfusion, organ transplantation, and eating food contaminated with the parasites.

Symptoms generally start off as mild fever, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, local swelling at the site of the bite, then may disappear. However, 30 to 40% of people develop further symptoms 10 to 30 years after the initial infection, including enlargement of the ventricles of the heart, heart failure, enlarged esophagus or enlarged colon.

Chikungunya fever

Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus

Vector: mosquitoes: in Africa Aedes species, Culex annulirostris, Mansonia uniformis and Anopheles species; in Asia and other parts of the world the main transmitters are Aedes albopictus and Aedes aegypti

Organism: virus, Chikungunya virus

Chikungunya fever occurs across a broad band of the tropics from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Papua New Guinea in the western Pacific. Cases have also been reported in South and Central America, US, southern Europe.

The main symptoms are fever, severe joint pain for several weeks, skin rash, muscle pain, headache, nausea, fatigue. Most patients recover but the joint pain may last for months or years. There is no vaccine or specific treatment. It is similar to Dengue fever for the vectors, symptoms, apart from joint pain, and geographical area.


House flies on meat

Vector: flies: house flies (family Muscidae), blow flies (family Calliphoridae), and flesh flies (family Sarcophagidae) (mechanical infection)

Organism: bacteria, Vibrio cholera

Cholera is a disease of poor sanitation, poverty and conflict, caused by ingestion of faecally contaminated food and water. Insects play a role in spreading the disease by carrying the bacteria from infected faeces and contaminated products around the human environment.

The incubation period is one to five days, after which the bacteria produces a toxin that causes large amounts of watery diarrhoea and vomiting leading to severe dehydration and death if not treated — 25-50% of severe cases are fatal.

An oral vaccine is available in some countries, but is only issued for visits to areas where cholera is endemic. It has been used successfully by WHO to control cholera outbreaks in recent years, mainly in areas of conflict in Africa. However, there is currently no vaccine available in Australia.

Colorado tick fever

Vector: tick: Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni)

Organism: virus, Coltivirus

Colorado tick fever occurs almost exclusively in the mountain areas of the western US and Canada. Symptoms include fever, headaches, pain behind the eyes, light sensitivity, muscle pain, nausea and vomiting. Treatment is symptomatic to reduce fever and pain.

Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever

Vector: Tick: Hyalomma marginatum

Organism: virus, Nairovirus

The virus is transmitted to humans either by a tick bite or by coming into contact with blood or tissue of an infected animal, which can be cattle, sheep or goats. The tick Hyalomma marginatum is widespread across North Africa and Asia and is present in southern and eastern Europe. It is commonly spread via migrating birds and livestock.

The virus is endemic in Africa, Middle East, the Balkans, west and south Asia and is considered an emerging pathogen in Europe, where there has been both new cases in several countries and the detection of virus antibodies in other countries, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Symptoms include fever, muscle ache, dizziness, neck pain, backache, headache, sore eyes, sensitivity to light, vomiting, diarrhoea. The fatality rate is 5-40% and there is no validated therapy and no safe vaccine.


Aedes mosquito

Vector: Mosquitoes: Aedes aegypti, Aedes albopictus

Organism: Dengue virus

Dengue is the most important mosquito-borne viral disease in the world, according to WHO, which has targeted it as one of 17 Neglected Tropical Diseases for major campaigns for awareness and eradication. It is endemic in over 100 countries across the tropics, from central and South America, Africa, South and Southeast Asia and to the Pacific Islands. It has increased rapidly over the last few decades in urban sprawls that provide ideal conditions for breeding. The WHO estimates that there are 50-100 million infections a year and half the world’s population live in countries where it is endemic.

The threat of Dengue is greater than the current outbreaks as the mosquito vectors are present in a far wider geographic range, and the Tiger Mosquito Aedes albopictus, especially is widening its range. New cases were reported in Croatia, France, Madeira Islands, Florida (USA) and Yunnan (China) in the last few years.

The majority of cases have no symptoms or mild fever, while about 5% have severe illness that shows as sudden fever 3-14 days after infection, with headache, muscle pain, joint pain, and a body rash. There is no vaccine and no specific treatment.

Epidemic typhus

Head louse

Vectors: body louse, head louse

Organism: bacteria, Rickettsia prowazekii

As with other louse-borne fevers, typhus tends to occur in conditions of overcrowding and poor hygiene such as refugee camps and prisons. It occurs mainly in central and eastern Africa, central and South America, and Asia. Recent outbreaks have occurred in Burundi, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Infection occurs from crushing the lice or rubbing the skin where the lice are feeding and defecating and carrying the bacteria to wounds and mucous membranes.

Some cases in the US have been associated with flying squirrels nesting in houses over winter, but the means of infection is still unknown as the patients did not have lice.

The symptoms can include high fever, headache, severe muscular pain and after 5-6 days a rash of dark spots.


Ixodes tick

Vector: ticks

Organism: bacteria, Ehrlichia species, Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Neorickettsia sennetsu

Ehrlichiosis is general term used to describe several bacterial infections that attack white blood cells. They are thought to be confined to areas of the US, with the different bacteria thought to occur in specific geographic ranges. However, relatively little is known about the diseases.

The symptoms occur about 14 days after infection and in 12-hour cycles. They can include headache, muscle aches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and occasionally a rash, but vary greatly.

Japanese encephalitis

Culex pipiens mosquito

Vector: mosquito, Culex species

Organism: Flavivirus, Japanese encephalitis virus

Japanese encephalitis occurs mainly in rural areas of East, Southeast and South Asia. Infection rates are associated with the rainy season and flooding of paddy fields. The main hosts of the virus are pigs and wading birds, with humans as incidental hosts that rarely pass on the disease through further bites. It is closely related to West Nile virus and St. Louis encephalitis virus.

The majority of infections do not show any symptoms, but in a few cases, especially children, the virus invades the brain and high fever symptoms and headache start showing after 5-15 days. This develops into coma, tremors and convulsions. There is no specific treatment but vaccines are available.

Kyansur forest disease

Vector: tick, Hemaphysalis spinigera

Organism: Flavivirus, Kyansur forest disease virus

The disease is restricted to southern India, where there are 4-500 cases a year, although similar fevers are thought to occur in Russia (Russian spring-summer encephalitis and Omsk haemorrhagic fever). Human infection can occur through a tick bite or from contact with infected monkeys, in which it was first discovered in 1957, or other animals.

Symptoms include high fever, headaches and haemorrhagic symptoms — bleeding of the nose, throat, gums and gastrointestinal bleeding. A vaccine is available for prevention but there is no specific treatment and full recovery can take months.



Vector: sandflies: Phlebotomus species

Organism: protozoa, Leishmania species

Leishmaniasis is spread by bites from female sandflies. These are tiny flies 1.5-3.0 mm long with large black eyes and hairy body wings and legs. They breed in forest areas, caves and adobe brick houses where most of the infection of humans takes place. Rodents, dogs and other mammals are reservoirs for the disease.

There are more than 20 species of the protozoan that produce several forms of the disease: cutaneous, mucosal and visceral, causing variously, skin sores, chronic ulcers, mucosal infections, and infections of the spleen, liver, bone marrow and lymph nodes. The disease occurs in many countries in tropical and subtropical regions, with the different forms more prevalent in certain countries, although Brazil is a major source of all three forms.

WHO has estimated that 310 million people are at risk from the disease. There are 300,000 cases of visceral leishmaniasis and over 20,000 deaths a year, while 1 million cases of the cutaneous form were reported over a five-year period (to 2012).

The bite leaves a non-swollen red ring and symptoms of infection are fever and anaemia.

Lyme disease/ Borreliosis

Vectors: deer tick: Ixodes spp. Ixodes scapularis, I. pacificus, I. ricinus (Europe), I. persulcatus (Asia)

Organism: bacteria, Borrelia spp, Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato

Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the northern hemisphere, maintained by many species of mammal that the ticks feed on are reservoirs of the disease. Infections are reported to be 7.9 cases per 100,000 population in the USA (WHO) and there are over 6,000 cases reported in England and Wales annually.

Symptoms of Lyme disease include: a pink or red rash which in most cases has a central red spot and outer red circle — like a ‘bull’s eye’; temperature of 38°C/ 100.4°F or above; flu like symptoms such as headache and joint pain; swollen lymph nodes. It can be treated with antibiotics, but if untreated, symptoms can last for years, including arthritis, numbness, paralysis and around 10% of people infected develop central nervous system disease.

Lymphatic filariasis

Anopheles mosquito

Vectors: Mosquitoes: (Culex spp, Anopheles spp, Aedes spp), horse fly (Tabanidae)

Organism: roundworm, Wuchereria bancrofti (90%), Brugia malayi, B. timori

The adult parasitic worm only lives in the human lymph system and is spread between people by mosquito bites. It affects more than 120 million people, according to WHO, of whom 40 million are disfigured or incapacitated, including 25 million men with genital disease. This results in large numbers of people suffering long term pain, loss of productivity — for their families and the economy — and social exclusion.

The worms can be present in the body for years without showing symptoms, slowly damaging the lymphatic system, kidneys and immune system as they produce millions of larvae over a lifetime of 6-8 years. The worst symptoms usually show in adults, more commonly men, producing inflammation of tissue (elephantiasis) in arms, legs, genitals and the lymphatic system (lymphedema).

Drugs are available that will clear the parasites from the bloodstream, so the disease can be eliminated with a concerted campaign.


Vector: mosquitoes, Anopheles species

Organism: protozoan, Plasmodium falciparum, P. vivax, P. ovale, P. malariae, P. knowlesi

Malaria causes up to a million deaths a year and is estimated to infect over 200 million people worldwide. It is present in 97 countries covering half the world’s population. Around 90% of deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, especially Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those most at risk are the poor in remote communities with few health facilities, the young, pregnant women and people with HIV.

The parasite has a complex life cycle, having a series of stages in the mosquito and the animal host. In the host, one form can live in the liver for up to 30 years producing no symptoms; other forms grow and reproduce in the red blood cells, including male and female forms that can infect mosquitoes.

The symptoms of fever, headache and vomiting show 7-15 days after infection. If not treated, P. falciparum can multiply rapidly and block small blood vessels in vital organs including in the brain. Other types have dormant liver stages that can reactivate months or years later.

Murine typhus/ endemic typhus

Vectors: fleas, Xenopsylla cheopis, louse

Organism: bacteria, Rickettsia typhi

The disease occurs worldwide, transmitted by fleas that infest rats and less frequently by mice, cats and opossums. It is more common in rat infested buildings and living areas such as refugee camps.

The infection is passed on by contact with the faeces of the flea, through skin wounds or rubbing hands on infected areas then passing it onto mucous membranes and the mouth.

Symptoms are similar to the louse-borne epidemic typhus, but it lasts for a shorter time and is less severe. They include a rash six days after infection, headache, fever, muscle and joint pain, nausea, vomiting. The symptoms may resemble measles or rubella. Murine typhus is treatable with antibiotics.

Onchocerciasis/ River blindness

Blackfly sucking blood

Vector: Blackfly, Simulium species

Organism: nematode worm, Onchocerca volvulus

River blindness affects 37 million people, mainly in 31 countries in Africa and also Central and South America. It is only a risk in remote rural areas near fast flowing streams where the blackfly breeds.

The parasite causes itching of the skin, lymphadenitis (hanging groins), elephantiasis of the genitals, serious visual impairment, and blindness.

The parasite has a complex lifecycle, only reproducing in humans and having several larval stages in the blackfly. The female blackflies seek a blood meal after mating and if they feed on an infected human can ingest the microfilariae stage from the blood. The microfilariae produce larvae, which have three stages, the last of which migrates to the head and proboscis of the fly and can infect humans via the saliva on biting.

The larvae migrate to subcutaneous tissue where they form nodules and mature into adults in 6-10 months. The adults mate and the female produces a microfilaria stage, which can then be ingested by the blackfly on feeding.

The adult nematode worm can grow to 50cm and live in the nodules for 15 years, producing the microfilaria stage for up to nine years.

Treatment is available to kill the microfilariae and relieve the skin itching, but not to kill the adult worms. However a potential new treatment has been reported by CDC using an antibiotic that kills a symbiotic bacterium, Wolbachia, that is essential for the parasite’s survival.

Pappataci fever

Vector: Sandfly, Phlebotomus species

Organism: virus, Phlebovirus serotypes

There are three serotypes of the virus: Toscana, Sicilian and Naples. It occurs in a band around the Mediterranean, across the Middle East to northern India and southwest China. Symptoms appear a few days after infection: fever, severe frontal headache and muscle and joint ache, rapid heart rate and facial flushing, subsiding after two days. It is also known as three-day fever, phlebotomus fever and sandfly fever. There is no specific treatment.


Flea, Pulex irritans

Vector: fleas, mainly the Oriental rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopsis

Organism: bacteria, Yersinia pestis

The plague bacteria can be transferred to humans by several routes:

  • flea bites;
  • handling contaminated animals or their body parts and fluids, including contaminated soil and surfaces;
  • infectious air-borne particles, from infected people coughing or infected products.

The rat was the main carrier of the disease in the well-known historical epidemics in the middle ages that killed millions, when it was transported along land and sea trade routes. In current times the plague is present in low rates in a wide variety of small mammals and their predators in parts of Asia, Africa, South America and the US.

Three types of the plague are recognised, according to how the infection is caught:

  • bubonic plague: the most common sign is swollen and painful lymph nodes (buboes) where the bacteria multiply and can spread from if not treated. There is also sudden onset of fever conditions, extreme weakness.
  • septicemic plague: fever conditions, extreme weakness, diarrhoea, delirium, abdominal pain, shock and bleeding in the skin and other organs. The skin and other tissues can turn black and die especially on fingers, toes and the nose.
  • pneumonic plague: fever conditions, shock and pneumonia, causing breathing difficulty, chest pain, cough and bloody mucous.

The plague is treatable with antibiotics. In bubonic plague death can occur in less than two weeks, in septicemic plague death can occur before symptoms appear, and in pneumonic plague all untreated patients die.

Q fever

Vector: tick (rarely, mainly infected animal fluids and dust)

Organism: bacteria, Coxiella burnetii

Q fever is a widespread disease mainly caught through infected animal fluids including milk, amniotic fluid, placenta, urine and faeces of infected cattle, sheep and goats. It is rarely caught from ticks.

About half of people infected show symptoms including high fever, severe headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, joint and muscle pain, respiratory problems. It can be treated with certain antibiotics. Some patients can progress to more serious chronic symptoms of pneumonia, hepatitis and heart inflammation, which can require long-term antibiotic treatment.

Relapsing fever, tick-borne relapsing fever

Vector: body louse, head louse, soft ticks (Ornithodoros species)

Organism: bacteria, Borrelia species

Relapsing fever is characterised by episodes of fever lasting several days followed by a longer fever-free period of about seven days. This can be accompanied by body aches, muscle pain, joint pain, headache, nausea, vomiting, anorexia, dry cough, light sensitivity, rash, neck pain, eye pain, confusion, and dizziness.

The louse-borne fever is caused by Borrelia recurrentis and is only spread between humans. It breaks out mainly in areas of poor living conditions, famine and conflict — currently Ethiopia and Sudan. It causes jaundice, severe bleeding, mental affects and heart problems. Infection occurs from crushing the lice or rubbing the skin where the lice are feeding and defecating and carrying the bacteria to wounds and mucous membranes. The louse borne fever is more severe, having a mortality rate of 30–70% without treatment and 1% with treatment.

The tick borne variety occurs in Africa, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Asia, Canada, US. Each tick species tends to carry a particular Borrelia species and occurs in different habitats, using a range of small animals as reservoir hosts. The ticks can have a lifespan over 10 years so infestations in buildings can remain for years.

Rickettsial fevers

Ixodes tick on grass

Vector: fleas, ticks

Organism: bacteria, Rickettsia species

Rickettsia is a group of primitive bacteria that live only within animal cells and rely on host cell biochemical processes to survive. They are carried by many insects and arachnids, such as ticks, fleas, lice and mites.

Rickettsia species are responsible for a number of diseases, including the groups of typhus and spotted fevers that occur in different geographical areas with their associated species, for example:

  • Epidemic typhus (Rickettsia prowazekii) — worldwide
  • Murine typhus (Rickettsia typhi) — worldwide
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever (Rickettsia rickettsii) — western hemisphere
  • African tick bite fever (Rickettsia africae) — South Africa
  • Siberian tick typhus (Rickettsia sibirica) — Siberia, Mongolia, northern China
  • Boutonneuse fever (Rickettsia conorii) — Mediterranean countries, Africa, Southwest Asia, India
  • Australian tick typhus (Rickettsia australis) — Australia
  • Flea-borne spotted fever (Rickettsia felis) — North and South America, southern Europe, Australia
  • Oriental spotted fever (Rickettsia japonica) — Japan
  • Rickettsialpox (Rickettsia akari) — USA, Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, Korea, the Balkan states

The more important diseases are covered under their individual headings.


Vector: house-mouse mites (Liponyssoides sanguineus)

Organism: bacteria, Rickettsia akari

Human infection is most likely during natural die-offs of mice or after pest control when the mites seek new hosts for a blood meal. Infection is transmitted by the bite of the mite. It has been reported in urban areas of Ukraine, Russia, South Africa, Korea, Croatia, France and the US.,/p>

Rickettsialpox is regarded as a mild disease that takes 2-3 weeks to recover from. The first symptom is a bump around the bite that appears about a week after the bite, which turns into black crusty scab. A few days following this, a fever may occur, similar to flu, with a rash that covers the body.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever

Vector: tick: American dog tick (Dermacentor variablilis) and the Rocky Mountain Wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni)

Organism: bacteria: Rickettsia rickettsia

This is the most common rickettsial disease in the US, though it occurs throughout North, Central and South America. Rodents are reservoirs of the disease, acting as both hosts for the ticks and as sources of infection for the immature stages of the ticks.

Typical Rocky Mountain spotted fever symptoms include fever, headache abdominal pain, vomiting and muscle pain. A skin rash, which shows as closely spaced red spots, may also develop after a few days.

Ross River fever

Vector: mosquitoes (many species); in Australia, mainly Culex annulirostris in inland areas, Aedes vigilax in northern coastal regions and Ae. camptorhynchus in southern coastal regions

Organism: Ross River virus

Named after the Ross River in Queensland, where the virus was first isolated in 1959, it only occurs in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, Cook Islands and some South Pacific Islands and is only transmitted by the bite of mosquitoes. The main reservoirs hosts are kangaroos and wallabies, but other mammals are also thought to hold the virus, including possums and horses and also birds.

Symptoms of the disease include fever, fatigue, rash, joint pain (arthralgia) and arthritis. Symptoms of joint and muscle pain can last for years. There is currently no vaccine and no specific treatment for the disease.


Cockroaches feeding on an orange

Vector: house flies (family Muscidae), blow flies (family Calliphoridae), and flesh flies (family Sarcophagidae), cockroaches [mechanical infection]

Organism: bacteria, Salmonella enterica

Salmonella bacteria can be carried by flies and cockroaches that inhabit ‘filth’ by mechanical transmission after contact with infected faeces from humans or animals and contaminated products. In the US alone it is estimated to cause one million infections, 19,000 hospitalisations and nearly 400 deaths a year, according to CDC.

The Salmonella species of bacteria has a complex classification, having six subspecies which are further classified into 2500 serovars, a few of which are important causes of disease in humans.

Salmonellosis is caught mainly from contaminated water, foods, especially raw poultry, minced beef, and raw eggs. Poor hygiene in vegetable and fruit harvesting and pets, especially reptiles, baby chicks and ducklings are also sources of infection. Avoidance of contact, general hygiene and hand hygiene are the most important means of prevention.

Symptoms include diarrhoea, fever, vomiting, and abdominal cramps. Most people recover in a few days without treatment other than replacement of fluid lost by the body. Once a person is infected, however, the disease is easily transmitted to other people through poor hand hygiene and poor sanitation.

Typhoid fever

One serovar of Salmonella (Salmonella enterica subsp. enterica serovar Typhi) causes more severe infection and spreads from the intestines to the blood and lymphatic system and then to other body sites. It is endemic in many developing countries, where it affects around 27 million people a year, especially in India and in children. It only occurs in humans and is spread through faecal contamination, therefore poor hygiene plays a major role in maintaining its presence. It is treatable with antibiotics and a vaccine is available.


Vector: House flies (family Muscidae), blow flies (family Calliphoridae), and flesh flies (family Sarcophagidae), cockroaches (mechanical infection)

Organism: bacteria, Shigella species

Shigellosis is one of the major diarrhoea and dysentery causing organisms worldwide, responsible for about 90 million infections annually. It is caught by ingesting food and water contaminated with faeces from infected people. The bacteria only occur in humans and primates so is dependent on poor hygiene for maintaining infections — only 10-100 bacteria are required to cause an infection.

Symptoms take up to a week to appear. The infection causes diarrhoea with blood, mucous or pus, fever, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and wind, that can last for days or weeks. Severe cases are treated with antibiotics.

Tick-borne encephalitis

Vector: ticks: including Ixodes scapularis, I. ricinus and I. persulcatus

Organism: virus: Flavivirus

Three types of the disease are recognised: European/Western, Far Eastern and Siberian. It is present in a band stretching across the Eurasian continent, from Italy in southern Europe to Finland in the north, through southern Russia and bordering countries to northern China and Korea in the Far East. Around 5-7,000 cases are reported annually in Europe and Russia.

Symptoms include influenza-like symptoms, high fever, severe headache, nausea, vomiting and back pain. The disease infects the central nervous system in about 30% of cases, which can result in paralysis and in 1-2% of cases death.


Horse fly

Vector: ticks, deer flies (Chrysops species), horse fly (Tabanidae), mosquitoes

Organism: bacteria: Francisella tularensis

Francisella tularensis is present in a wide geographic band across the whole northern hemisphere. In areas where it is endemic, infections are seasonal and climate related, which may affect breeding conditions for vectors, though little research has been done, according to WHO. Many wild animals carry the disease and domestic cats are susceptible to infection.

The bacteria is highly infectious, needing only a few organisms to cause infection, though person-to-person infection is unknown. It can only survive in host cells where it depends on certain cell processes to survive.

There are several strains that vary in virulence and geographical range. Tularaemia is easily transmitted through the skin, mucous membranes, by direct contact with infected animals or animal materials, ingesting of contaminated food or water, and inhalation of contaminated dust or aerosols.

Each form of infection produces specific symptoms, usually inflammation and swelling at the site of infection, such as the eye, skin bite, lungs and swelling of nearby lymph glands. It can spread to multiple organ systems, including the lungs, liver, spleen, and lymphatic system, depending on the route of infection. It can be treated with antibiotics.

West Nile Fever

Vector: several species of mosquito

Organism: Flavivirus, West Nile virus

The disease was virtually unknown outside Uganda, where it was first identified in 1937, until the 1990s, when there was an outbreak in Algeria. It is now present in all temperate and tropical continents, with even the US experiencing an outbreak in 2012 that killed 286 people. The Australian Department of Health has reported under 10 cases a year since the year 2000.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control monitors infections in Europe and in 2015 reported eight human cases of WNF in EU Member States up to August: Austria (1), Italy (4), Bulgaria (1), Romania (1) and Austria (1). Eight cases were detected in neighbouring countries: Israel (7) and Serbia (1). It produces an interactive map of cases.

Around 80% of people infected do not show any symptoms. In the remainder, symptoms appear in 2-15 days, including fever, headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhoea, or rash. Most people recover completely, but weakness can last for weeks or months. A small number of patients develop encephalitis, meningitis or poliomyelitis. There is no specific treatment and no vaccine.

Yellow fever

Aedes aegypti mosquito

Vector: mosquitoes: Aedes aegypti, A. africanus, A. bromeliae and other mosquito species

Organism: Virus, Flavivirus

Yellow fever is a haemorrhagic fever that originated in the central belt of Africa but spread to South America in the 17th century with the slave trade. It is endemic in 34 countries in Africa where the majority of the estimated 30,000 deaths from 200,000 infections a year occur. It has three patterns of transmission:

  • urban, transmitted by A. aegypti, which breeds in fresh water in the human environment such as tin cans, water drums, gutters, etc. This is the main mode of infection in Africa;
  • forest pattern, transmitted by mainly A. africanus, A. bromeliae, where monkeys are the primary host. This is the main pattern in South America; and
  • an intermediate or ‘savannah’ pattern, which has become more prominent in Africa recently.

Symptoms show 3-6 days after infection, including fever, headache, backache, general muscle pain, nausea, and vomiting. About 15% of cases develop into an acute, toxic phase with jaundice due to liver damage and haemorrhagic signs — bleeding in the mouth, eyes, nose, and gastrointestinal tract giving ‘black vomit’. This stage is fatal for 20% or more of patients.

A safe vaccine is available and gives protection for at least 10 years.