Sir: The chief cause of morbidity in Ireland from 1846 through 1849 was a series of epidemics of relapsing fever, a febrile infection transmitted by lice and bedbugs. Relapsing fever, and to a much lesser extent typhoid and infantile marasmus, are likely to have accounted for two-thirds of deaths in Ireland during the famine years.
There is no physiological connection between relapsing fever and malnutrition; it was frequently remarked at the time that however well fed, people were still dying of fever. The doctors, nurses and volunteer workers on the scene could do nothing to halt the epidemics, nor save those who became infected; many of the thousands of selfless people ministering to the hungry and sick themselves fell victim to relapsing fever. Since the common louse was not identified as the vector of the disease until 1891, nor bedbugs until 1927, there is nothing anyone could have done to save these lives.
Professor REGINALD BYRON
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Wales