Epidemic typhus is transmitted to human beings by the body louse Pediculus humanus corporis. The disease is still considered a major threat by public-health authorities, despite the efficacy of antibiotics, because poor sanitary conditions are conducive to louse proliferation. Until recently, Rickettsia prowazekii, the causal agent, was thought to be confined to human beings and their body lice. Since 1975, R prowazekii infection in human beings has been related to contact with the flying squirrel Glaucomys volans in the USA. Moreover, Brill-Zinsser disease, a relapsed form of epidemic typhus that appears as sporadic cases many years after the initial infection, is unrelated to louse infestation. Stress or a waning immune system are likely to reactivate this earlier persistent infection, which could be the source of new epidemics when conditions facilitate louse infestation. Finally, R prowazekii is a potential category B bioterrorism agent, because it is stable in dried louse faeces and can be transmitted through aerosols. An increased understanding of the pathogenesis of epidemic typhus may be useful for protection against this bacterial threat.