Epidemic Typhus is a disease of war affecting refugees and prisoners of war. Throughout the history, there has been numerous cases of Typhus killing hundreds of thousands of people. It is caused by a virus Rickettsia prowazekii proliferating through contact with infected body lice.
During the outbreaks of First World War, two eastern European microbiologist Arthur Felix and Edward Weil devised a method to diagnose Rickettsia in a surreptitious manner, exploiting the cross-reactivity of Rickettsia with the molecular marker OX 19 found on another bacteria altogether, Proteus vulgaris. This bacteria can cause the rare urinary tract infection, but fortuitously happens to have the unusual trait of evoking the same bacteria-killing antibodies as R. proawazekii. (Source- Discover)
If the patient is infected with Typhus the anti-Rickettisal antibodies that have been supplied to fight the infection will zoom in on Proteus, recognizing the structurally identical proteins. The blood sample will agglutinate due to the presence of existing antibodies on the bacteria and the patient will be diagnosed with Typhus. However if the Proteus is already made to enter in the blood it will show the same effect as the Typhus bacteria and hence the patient will be tested positive for Typhus when dispensing The Weil Felix test.
Germans have two words for cleanliness that have no English translation. The Nazis were obsessed with it. Taking advantage of this habit, two Polish doctors saved around 8000 Jewish Poles from the brutal forces of Nazis. In 1939, German occupied Poland wiping out one-fifth of the population in execution and concentration camps. Amidst all this, two doctors Dr Eugene Lazowski and Dr Stanisław Matulewicz used Proteus which was actually a vaccine of Typhus to shield the Jews from the Nazis. When the blood samples of these patients were consigned to the German Laboratories and were tested positive for Typhus there was an uproar among Nazis. The German concentration camps were already affected by Typhus Epidemic due to lack of sanitation and congestion of people. The mortality rate and contagion of Typhus was really high. The Nazis were in trepidation pondering about the ramifications of the Epidemic. They didn’t want to jeopardize the strength of their army whilst it was busy conquering and fighting off the Allies.
The Germans quarantined the region of Rozwadow and soon the people of Rozawadow who were deported to the labor camps were sent back to their homes. This ruse lasted for two years and sheltered around 8000 Polish Jews from the oppression of the Nazis. “More and more positive Weil-Felix reactions were reported by German-controlled laboratories to German authorities and confirmed by our reports,” the doctors wrote. “Soon the number of reported cases was sufficiently large to declare the area of our practice (about a dozen villages) an ‘epidemic area,’ with relative freedom from oppression.”
The Nazis however percieved the lack of deaths in this area and to clear their scepticism sent a team of German Doctors to investigate. Prior to their arrival, Lazowski accumulated his most unhealthy looking patients in a dirty room. When the doctors reached their place, they took only a glance at the room afraid of catching the infection and after running a few tests went away satisfied with the verity of the epidemic.
A Nazi deputation consisting of an elderly doctor and two younger assistants was sent to investigate the results sent by Drs. Matulewicz and Lazowski. They were cordially received and in the traditional Polish manner given food and vodka. The senior doctor did not personally inspect any of the village, but remained to be entertained, dispatching his juniors. They made a cursory examination of the buildings but, being aware of the risks of infection, were easily dissuaded from closer inspection. An old man dying of pneumonia was brought in for the senior doctor and with much drama shown to be severely ill with, it was claimed, typhus fever. As Goethe said, “We see what we know.” They saw, were convinced, and left- British Medical Journal.
Two unsung heroes saved 8000 Poles from the brutality of Nazis. Did you know about them? Thousands of such people risked their lives, putting their families in danger to help the Jews. Around 70 years later, if such thing would happen in this day, Would you do the same?