A message is written on a door outside a tent at a homeless encampment at Strathcona Park, in Vancouver, on Wednesday, October 7, 2020. Residents of the neighbourhood were used to a few people sleeping overnight in a park before moving on, but they weren’t prepared for an entire village of homeless campers still occupying 400 tents after over three months. They have been demanding the city take action to house campers, especially as concerns have mounted about the spread of COVID-19 among hundreds of people living in tight quarters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A message is written on a door outside a tent at a homeless encampment at Strathcona Park, in Vancouver, on Wednesday, October 7, 2020. Residents of the neighbourhood were used to a few people sleeping overnight in a park before moving on, but they weren’t prepared for an entire village of homeless campers still occupying 400 tents after over three months. They have been demanding the city take action to house campers, especially as concerns have mounted about the spread of COVID-19 among hundreds of people living in tight quarters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Specialist who treated rare disease among homeless wants doctors to be aware of signs

Those four cases this year are the only ones known to have occurred in Canada since the mid-1990s

As an infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Carl Boodman has had a longtime interest in an illness that commonly afflicted soldiers during the First World War as well as people who now live in crowded refugee camps.

But Boodman had no idea when he encountered a case of trench fever in Winnipeg earlier this year that he’d soon be treating three more patients with the same condition and that all of them had spent time in a homeless shelter.

Trench fever is transmitted through the feces of body lice, which can be left on clothing and trigger an itchy reaction causing people to scratch their skin to the point that they end up with abrasions.

That is one of the signs of the misunderstood infectious disease, which could also cause fever, shin pain and a potentially fatal heart infection called endocarditis.

Those four cases this year are the only onesknown to have occurred in Canada since the mid-1990s, said Boodman, who is also training in medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba.

However, cases may go undiagnosed because doctors are unlikely to be aware of what to look for and therefore don’t order specific lab tests to detect a bacterium called Bartonella quintana, which was first linked to the condition a century ago, he said.

Boodman, who is the lead author of an article highlighting trench fever in Monday’s edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, said the neglected and preventable disease of poverty is known to strike people who are homeless and have little access to medical care.

“It’s a disease associated with wartime conditions and refugee camps and it’s found in Canada. If we didn’t have this degree of poverty in Canada we wouldn’t have this disease,” he said.

People living in shelters may share clothing on which the dried feces of body lice can survive for weeks, Boodman said, adding there’s a public health need for access to laundry facilities and showers as well as affordable housing to prevent spread of disease in general among people who are underhoused across Canada.

He treated his first case of trench fever in February when a patient visited an emergency department in Winnipeg.

The 48-year-old man with shortness of breath and chest pain had repeatedly sought medical care in the previous year and a half for episodes of chest pain and body lice infestation, said Boodman of the patient who was in ICU and spent a month in hospital following heart surgery for endocarditis. He has since recovered.

About two weeks after starting to treat that patient, Boodman was so “baffled” when he saw a second patient with what appeared to be trench fever that he had the lab tests repeated twice before confirming the diagnosis.

He treated a third patient for the same disease at a different hospital about a month later, before a colleague mentioned a mysterious case involving a man who had endocarditis. Lab tests confirmed he, too, had trench fever.

“You don’t know anything about it for 20 years or so and then you have this succession of cases,” Boodman said, adding some patients may have the bacterium associated with body lice in their bloodstream for months and be asymptomatic for the disease that could become serious, requiring surgery to replace a heart valve.

A combination of antibiotics is often prescribed but there is debate on treatment of the disease, and its prevalence is unknown because it is not reported to public health officials in Canada and the United States, Boodman said.

Small studies from cases in the south of France and cities in the United States including Seattle and San Francisco have estimated that up to 20 per cent of homeless people with body lice could have been exposed to the bacterium that causes trench fever, Boodman said.

Dr. Stephen Hwang, who holds a research chair in homelessness, housing and health at St. Michael’s Hospital and the University of Toronto, said that while there is a need to recognize the rare but potentially deadly trench fever, other conditions such as skin infections, respiratory illnesses as well as poorly controlled diabetes and high blood pressure are common among underhoused populations.

Hwang treats homeless people in Toronto’s shelters and encampments once a week as a member of a group called the Inner City Health Associates, the largest such organization in Canada, with 100 physicians as well as nurses providing care to the underhoused in multiple locations including respite centres and hotels.

The aim is to provide better primary care to people who also experience more mental health and addictions issues, he said, adding secure housing is key to better health, especially as more families and seniors are becoming homeless.

“Without that stability it’s very difficult to deal with any of the acute or chronic conditions that they’re dealing with. We really do need to invest in creating affordable housing or else we’ll have to pay with the cost of the health consequences of that.”

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Homelessness

Just Posted

Students at Creston Valley Secondary School put together an art installation of a replica residential school room. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Creston students create art installation of residential school room

The replica was decorated with a small bed, school uniform, and notes written with pleas for help

An example of the kinds of invasive plants that can be found in Golden. (Tesia Hackett photo)
Golden annual weedpull back for 14th year

Invasive plants can be harmful to local ecosystems, Wildsight says

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

BC CDC map showing the geographic distribution of cases in the province. (BC CDC photo)
No new cases of COVID-19 in Golden

The last time the BC CDC reported a new case in the area was the week of May 23-29

Prince Charles Secondary School
School District 8 votes in favour of name change for Secondary School in Creston

In an act of reconciliation, a new name will be chosen for Prince Charles Secondary School

Bear wanders Kelowna on June 15. (Michelle Wallace/Facebook)
Bear climbs fence, uses crosswalk in Kelowna

The bear was spotted on Baron Road Wednesday evening

Hundreds of people, young and old, joined the three-day Walking Our Spirits Home procession, honouring residential school survivors, those who never made it home and all those affected by the institutions. Here people walk the third portion on June 13. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
Walking Our Spirits Home from Kamloops provides path to healing

First Nations in and beyond Secwépemc territory join in to honour residential school survivors

More flames
Lake Country home destroyed in large blaze, 11 dogs rescued

Fire crews are responding to 10839 Hallam Drive

(Facebook/Kelowna Cabs)
Kelowna Cabs reaches tentative agreement with dispatchers union

The tentative agreement could help end the dispute between the taxi company and the dispatchers

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

201 First Street West 1980s. Prior revitalization. (Photo from Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
Man who redesigned downtown Revelstoke honoured with lifetime achievement award

Robert Inwood has worked on historical projects across the province

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

The weekly COVID-19 map for June 6 to 12. (BC CDC)
South Okanagan sees only 5 new cases in last week

The Similkameen Valley went a second week without any new cases

Most Read