(rĭkĕt'sēə), any of a group of very small microorganisms, many disease-causing, that live in vertebrates and are transmitted by bloodsucking parasitic arthropods such as fleas, lice (see louse), and ticks. Rickettsias are named after their discoverer, the American pathologist Harold Taylor Ricketts, who died of typhus in Mexico after confirming the infectious agent of that rickettsial disease. Rickettsias are gram-negative, coccoid-shaped or rod-shaped bacteria; unlike other bacteria, but like viruses, they require a living host (a living cell) to survive. Rickettsias from infected vertebrates, usually mammals, live and multiply in the gastrointestinal tract of an arthropod carrier but do not cause disease there; they are transmitted to another vertebrate, possibly one of another species, by the arthropod's mouthparts or feces.
Rickettsia prowazekii causes louse-borne typhus, carried from person to person by two species of lice. Flea, or murine, typhus, caused by R. mooseri, is transmitted from rodents to people by fleas. Trench fever, caused by R. quintana, was an epidemic disease in World War I; it is transmitted by the rat flea from rat to person or from person to person. Trench fever disease reservoirs (perpetuation of the disease in wild animal populations) exist in some parts of E Europe, Mexico, and N Africa. Various typhuslike rickettsial diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and African tick typhus, are transmitted by ticks from animal hosts to people. Mite-borne rickettsial infections include rickettsialpox, caused by Rickettsia akari and transmitted from house mice to people, and scrub typhus, or tsutsugamushi fever, caused by R. tsutsugamushi and found in Japan and SE Asia. Q fever, caused by Coxiella burnetii, a more hardy rickettsia viable outside the living host, is usually transmitted to humans by inhalation of contaminated airborne particles or from contaminated materials, often from infected livestock; it is an occupational hazard among dairy farm and slaughterhouse workers. A new rickettsia, Ehrlichia chaffeenis, which results in human ehrlichiosis, was identified in 1986.
The similar symptoms of rickettsial infections often make it difficult to distinguish one disease from another. In people the organisms grow in cells lining blood and lymph vessels; a rash, fever, and flulike symptoms are usually present. Q fever also causes lung damage. All rickettsial diseases respond to treatment with antibiotics such as doxycycline (a tetracycline) and chloramphenicol.
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Abstract Rickettsiae are small obligate, intracellular bacteria with small genomes owing to reductive evolution except for Coxiella burnetii, whi