Before WWI, Trench Fever Plagued the Ancient Romans and Napoleonic Soldiers

Long associated with the Great War, the disease actually dates back at least 2,000 years, a new study suggests

Trench warfare
Trench fever came to prominence during World War I, but new research suggests that the disease afflicted people long before the 20th century. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Infectious diseases ran rampant during World War I, with ailments ranging from influenza to trench fever, meningitis and pneumonia plaguing soldiers stationed on the frontlines. Scientists once thought that trench fever, a condition transmitted by body lice, originated during the war, but new research published in the journal PLOS One suggests that it actually dates back to ancient times.

“World War I was the perfect storm for a major outbreak of trench fever, but the bacteria was always very much prevalent,” co-author Davide Tanasi, an archaeologist at the University of South Florida, tells Isaac Schultz of Atlas Obscura.

Per the paper, researchers discovered traces of Bartonella quintana, the bacteria that causes trench fever, while examining 400 teeth taken from 145 people buried across nine sites in France, Italy, Ukraine and Russia between the 1st and 19th centuries A.D. Approximately 20 percent of the deceased individuals’ DNA contained the bacteria.

“Once contracted, there are diseases, like trench fever, that can leave traces within your DNA and can integrate your DNA with further information,” says Tanasi in a statement. “This means that once a person dies, even as far back as 2,000 years ago, it is still possible to find traces of the bacterium that infected them.”

As Bart Funnekotter reports for Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, the earliest evidence of B. quintana recorded by the team dates to the first through fourth centuries, when three individuals previously afflicted with trench fever were interred in Besançon, France. The study’s authors also found traces of the bacteria in the teeth of 34 Roman Christians buried in the catacombs of St. Lucia in Syracuse, Sicily, between the third and sixth centuries. (A 2005 study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases uncovered evidence of B. quintana in 4,000-year-old human remains at a French archaeological site.)

When researchers analyzed the teeth, they found remnants of B. quintana in 17.9 percent of the 78 civilians’ DNA and 20.1 percent of the 67 soldiers’ DNA—a discernible but not markedly significant difference, per the study. Crucially, all of the soldiers included in the sample died toward the latter end of the time range, with teeth taken from 18th- and 19th-century mass military graves. (Infected troops included men who fought alongside Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812.) The civilians, meanwhile, spanned the entirety of the 1st through 19th centuries.

Researchers Find Trench Fever
Researchers found the bacteria responsible for trench fever in ancient Roman skeletons. University of South Florida

Speaking with Atlas Obscura, Tanasi says the ancient Sicilians’ squalid living conditions contributed to the spread of the disease. Human body lice are the main carriers of trench fever, which causes cyclical five-day fevers, bone pain, headaches, nausea, vomiting and other unpleasant symptoms.

An estimated 380,000 to 520,000 British soldiers contracted trench fever during World War I. As Ceri Gage, a curator at the Museum of Military Medicine in Aldershot, England, told the Biomedical Scientist in 2018, the cramped, unhygienic environment of the trenches promoted a range of infections.

“The men were knee-deep in mud 9 out of 12 months of the year, surrounded by bacteria from the bodies of men and animals in No Man’s Land,” she explained. “Their bodies were weaker anyway from a lack of sleep, wet and dirty clothes and a restricted diet in which a piece of fruit or vegetable was a treat.”

Trench fever also proved problematic during World War II, when it “reappeared in epidemic form among German troops on the Eastern front,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Today, the disease remains an issue among impoverished and homeless populations. In recent years, outbreaks have occurred in San Francisco, Seattle and Denver, reports Markian Hawryluk for Kaiser Health News.

“Old infectious diseases always still have the potential to come back,” Michelle Barron, medical director of invention prevention and control at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, told Kaiser in July. “Even though we live in a society that we consider very modern and very safe on so many levels, these organisms, at the end of the day, have been here longer than us and plan to survive.”

Echoing Barron, Tanasi points out that “[a]rchaeology isn’t just the study of the past, but it’s something that can make the present better through the study of the past.”

“The more we understand about the behavior of these bacteria in the past, the more we can design plans to address them, contain them and eliminate them in the present,” he says in the statement.

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