What Is Trench Fever? Canadian Doctors Report Increase of Rare, Wartime Illness Among Homeless Population

Trench fever was once common among soldiers fighting in World War I, according to medical officials.
Trench fever was once common among soldiers fighting in World War I, according to medical officials.(Getty)

Trench fever, which is spread through the droppings of body lice, was once common among soldiers fighting in the trenches during World War I.

More and more homeless Canadians are being diagnosed with trench fever, a rare illness once common among soldiers in World War I, medical officials say. Now, doctors are blaming officials for allowing a preventable disease that is transmitted through the droppings of body lice to be possible in vulnerable communities.

"It's a disease associated with wartime conditions and refugee camps and it's found in Canada,” Dr. Carl Boodman of Winnipeg, Manitoba told CBC News. “If we didn't have this degree of poverty in Canada, we wouldn't have this disease.”

The disease begins with body lice feces, which can cause itching to the point of leaving abrasions to the skin, Boodman said. Later symptoms include fever, shin pain and endocarditis, which can sometimes be fatal.

Experts believe the condition is being spread through homeless shelters or encampments. Broodman explained that the bacteria from the body lice droppings can survive one week, and can pass from person to person if they are sharing clothing.

He said he has personally treated several cases of trench fever within a couple months. The first case was in February, when a 48-year-old man arrived to the hospital with shortness of breath and chest pain. He had previously had a history of body lice infestation.

Two weeks later, Boodman encountered his second case, which he said baffled him so much that he ran the tests again before confirming the diagnosis. Boodman encountered a third patient with the same illness about a month later at a different hospital.

“You don't know anything about it for 20 years or so and then you have this succession of cases," he said.

Boodman said he treated four cases himself, and there are an additional four recorded cases in Canada since the 1990s. However, he worries that there have been more undocumented instances as the disease is so rare, and doctors may not know to test for it.

He believes the solution, in the short term, is for shelters to put more emphasis on cleanliness, including giving their residents access to laundry facilities and showers.