Ancient Diseases Plague Canada’s Homeless Communities

diseases plaguing homeless people

In the past couple of years, we’ve learned the importance of community health. We’ve grown to understand the origins of illness. Seeing how one persons’ sickness can affect us all, we’ve gone to great lengths to abide by newly implemented community standards.

We’ve changed our clothing and facial adornments and abandoned handshakes and family dinners. In extreme circumstances, we’ve even postponed significant events like weddings and funerals. Our economy and our financial safety nets have fallen by the wayside, all in the name of public health.

Yet, for all of the sacrifices we have made, we still seem to have failed in taking away the underlying message, which is this:

Caring about your neighbor’s health is the preventative medicine we all need. And our neighbors are the people currently residing around us, whether they live in houses or not.

Here we are roaming the streets again, taking in movies and taking off masks. Here we are seeing our loved ones again, setting the tables and the world stage.

Meanwhile, just a few miles from these delightful get-togethers, another community, a neighboring community at that, suffers silently with sickness.

Life-Threatening Ancient Illnesses Hit the Homeless Community Hard

In 2019, the Atlantic reported that Medieval diseases like typhus and tuberculosis were running rampant through the homeless shelter system and across communal homeless encampments in California. At the time, the potential threat was the byproduct of a concept we were accustomed to.

Before 2020, homeless people were haphazardly housed in subpar conditions. They often resided in cramped spaces. The idea of socially distancing people in homeless shelters was completely unheard of, let alone regulated. And as a result, these diseases regained some traction, posing a genuine threat to that communal health we’ve come to hold so dear.

Much has changed since 2019. Even as international regulations relax, the CDC still advises social workers to separate client beds by at least six feet in homeless shelter situations. Large, well-ventilated rooms are recommended, and individual rooms are praised as best.

Canada’s Homeless Population Suffers with Trench Fever, a Disease Most Haven’t Seen Since World War I

In the months leading up to the pandemic, an alarming illness swept one of Canada’s most vulnerable populations- the homeless community.

Officials quickly identified the disease as Trench Fever, an ancient ailment that claimed millions of lives in the World War I era. The louse transmits the disease while it feasts on the body or scalp of its victims.

According to The Lancet, the close quarters soldiers were barricaded into played a huge role in the spread of Trench Fever during World War I. Once the disease and its cause were identified, major efforts were enforced to reduce the spread of body lice, which can cause other fatal diseases as well. By 1944, the disease was a rarity amongst British civilians and soldiers. In 1961, an antibiotic became available to cure the handful of people infected.

Since then, officials have regarded Trench Fever as a relic of ancient medicine. The fact that it is reemerging in some of the wealthiest nations on Earth has shocked the medical community and shed a spotlight on the abhorrent conditions homeless people in industrialized countries regularly face.

Diagnosing and Treating Trench Fever

Symptoms of Trench Fever are so commonly associated with other illnesses that this disease is extremely difficult to detect. Any of the following symptoms, when presented in tandem with head or body lice, could be symptoms of the potentially deadly disease:

  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • Shin pain
  • Rash

Life-saving medication is available for trench fever. The problem is it requires a timely diagnosis.

In 2020, officials diagnosed four cases of Trench Fever within Canada’s homeless population. This sparked health officials to alert the public of the disease’s reemergence and the threat it posed to public health. If diagnosed promptly, officials can administer life-saving medicine immediately. However, if the symptoms go untreated/undiagnosed, death via heart disease is the most likely outcome.

One particular case of Trench Fever highlighted by The Independent is a great example of why this is cause for concern. According to the source, a 48-year-old homeless man had to undergo a mitral and aortic valve replacement operation after the disease caused irreparable damage to his heart. Notedly, the man sought treatment for his symptoms multiple times for more than a year and a half. Doctors didn’t make the diagnosis until his life was already in danger.

In addition to being more vulnerable to communicable illnesses, houseless people are often overlooked by medical professionals who carry their own biases and stigmas into the examination rooms. Anytime a professional enters a setting with a pre-assumption in the back of their mind, this inhibits their decision-making abilities. As benign as that sounds, it can cost people their lives.

Housing is Healthcare. Please Remind Your Representatives

During the pandemic, we repeated this phrase over and over. When it comes to community health standards, this statement is always true. If you have a vested interest in public health, please support the right to housing as healthcare for all.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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