Rare World War I Disease Hits Denver, Colorado

Trench fever plagued soldiers during the First World War and is seeing a resurgence now, infecting 4 homeless people.
Fabienne Lang

If there's anything the world doesn't need this year it's another disease outbreak. Unfortunately, doctors in Denver, Colorado, have confirmed four cases of a rare World War I disease: trench fever. 

The rare condition is transmitted through body lice, and in this day and age typically target homeless people or those who aren't able to wash themselves or their clothes and linens often. In Denver, the four cases come from homeless people

An outbreak

"Two is always an outbreak, and then when we found a third—OK, we clearly have something going on," said Dr. Michelle Barron, a medical director of infection prevention and control at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. 

Barron received the call last month that confirmed a third person had contracted the rare World War I disease in Denver, which was followed by a fourth confirmed case. 

What is trench fever?

It's a condition that's caused by the bacterium Bartonella quintana, which leads to relapsing fever, bone pain, headache, nausea, vomiting, and malaise. Sometimes it can lead to skin lesions and even a life-threatening infection of the heart valves. 


The infection is spread through body lice, who harbor colonies of the bacterium in their digestive systems and then are excreted through their feces. The bugs enter the human body through cuts, the nose, or eyes. 

More typically today, trench fever is more common in the homeless or those living in areas where hygiene is difficult to maintain. Anyone with a compromised immune system is also more at risk of being infected. 

The Denver cases

So far, none of the four Denver cases of trench fever are linked, aside from the fact that all four people were homeless. All happened months apart, however, health officials warn that more may have been overlooked given most of the focus lately has been on the coronavirus pandemic

Luckily, the disease can be kept at bay for those who have easy access to washing machines. Washing and drying clothes and sheets at high temperatures will usually kill the lice, or simply replacing clothing altogether. 

This means that the likelihood of a trench fever outbreak around the world is limited, but it's still good to keep a close eye on it to prevent it from spreading any further.

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