Typhus in Naples, 1943-44: A Study in Vector Control
The response, by Allied military forces, to an outbreak of louse-borne epidemic typhus in the Italian city of Naples in 1943-44 has been hailed as a model of disease intervention and one of the greatest medical successes of the Second World War. The employment of the new insecticide DDT as an anti-typhus disinfectant has been highlighted as the crucial factor in controlling the outbreak: over a million inhabitants – men, women, and children – were ‘dusted’ with DDT powder in the first campaign to make mass use of it. The publicity given to the campaign’s apparent success shaped global strategies of vector control for years afterwards.
This research project reexamines this episode and its legacy with a view to highlighting past issues and practices of enduring relevance. Wartime Naples offers a resonant example of how modern warfare and migration can contribute to the spread of infectious disease: typhus was generally held to have arrived in the city on louse-ridden Italian servicemen back from various battle-fronts, then flourished in Naples’ overcrowded bomb-shelters. It is also instructive as an example of a foreign military force reacting urgently to a perceived need to control disease among a war-worn and largely urban population, and raises questions about the ethics of managing indigenous populations and related opportunities for experimentation, error and excess.