Typhus and Typhoid Fever Group

Clear descriptions of typhus begin to appear only in modern times, but epidemic occurrences of typhuslike diseases in ancient times can be recognized in China and Korea. For example, an epidemic that started in P'yongan Province in July 1524, and spread continuously until it reached the middle provinces of the peninsula, seems suspiciously typhuslike. The epidemic lasted until the spring of 1527, and contemporary accounts emphasized the high fever and contagious nature of the ailment. Another typhuslike epidemic seems to have occurred in 1543, and still another in 1612 in the province of Hamgyong and then spread to the south. It was because of this latter epidemic that Ho Chun was ordered to compile a new book of detailed curing methods, and certainly his account leaves the impression that this disease was a member of the typhus fever group.

As with typhus, little historical evidence of major epidemics of typhoid fever in Korea exists. Yet occasionally whole villages contracted a disease with symptoms suggestive of typhoid. It is likely that typhoid fever was endemic and epidemic during the Yi Dynasty, but few local outbreaks were noted in official records. Until recent times, typhus and typhoid were not distinguished from each other. Typhoid fever remained endemic in modern Korea, but many people viewed typhoid as a rather minor disease of about the same severity as "red dysentery."

Relapsing fever, a tick-borne disease that was considered one of the forms of typhus, may have appeared in Korea during the sixteenth century when epidemics occurred in China and Manchuria, but the evidence from the early Yi Dynasty is obscure. Two other diseases that might have existed in Korea during this time period are leptospirosis (Weil's disease or leptospiral jaundice) and rat-bite fever. Most Korean therapeutic texts included a brief account of certain curing methods that suggest knowledge of rat-bite fever.

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