Rocky Mountain spotted fever is the most lethal and most frequently reported rickettsial illness in the United States. It has been diagnosed throughout the Americas. Some synonyms for Rocky Mountain spotted fever in other countries include “tick typhus,” “Tobia fever” (Colombia), “São Paulo fever” or “febre maculosa” (Brazil), and “fiebre manchada” (Mexico). It is distinct from the viral tick-borne infection, Colorado tick fever. The disease is caused by Rickettsia rickettsii, a species of bacterium that is spread to humans by Dermacentor ticks. Initial signs and symptoms of the disease include sudden onset of fever, headache, and muscle pain, followed by development of rash. The disease can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages, and without prompt and appropriate treatment it can be fatal.
The name “Rocky Mountain spotted fever” is somewhat of a misnomer. Beginning in the 1930s, it became clear that this disease occurred in many areas of the United States other than the Rocky Mountain region. It is now recognized that this disease is broadly distributed throughout the continental United States, and occurs as far north as Canada and as far south as Central America and parts of South America. Between 1981 and 1996, this disease was reported from every U.S. state except Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and Alaska.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever remains a serious and potentially life-threatening infectious disease today. Despite the availability of effective treatment and advances in medical care, approximately 3% to 5% of individuals who become ill with Rocky Mountain spotted fever still die from the infection. However, effective antibiotic therapy has dramatically reduced the number of deaths caused by Rocky Mountain spotted fever; before the discovery of tetracycline and chloramphenicol in the late 1940s, as many as 30% of persons infected with R. rickettsii died.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever, like all rickettsial infections, is classified as a zoonosis. Zoonoses are diseases of animals that can be transmitted to humans. Many zoonotic diseases require a vector (e.g., a mosquito, tick, or mite) to be transmitted from the animal host to the human host. In the case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ticks are the natural hosts, serving as both reservoirs and vectors of R. rickettsii. Ticks transmit the organism to vertebrates primarily by their bites. Less commonly, infections may occur following exposure to crushed tick tissues, fluids, or tick feces.
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