- Trench fever was first identified in 1915 when British soldiers contracted it
- It is caused by a bacteria from lice that is released in its feces
- Experts believed trench fever started in WWI and only impacted soldiers
- Now, a team found traces of the bacteria in ancient Roman teeth
- The teeth were pulled from remains of people who lived 2,000 years ago
- The findings also show that certain diseases can interact with our DNA Trench fever was first identified in 1915 when 500,000 British soldiers contracted the disease, but new evidence suggests the sickness has been running rampant for much longer and is not only associate with warfare.
Traces of the bacteria that causes trench fever, called Bartonella quintana, has been discovered in teeth of 34 ancient Romans who died some 2,000 years ago.
Because the disease stems from lice, researchers from the University of South Florida (USF) theorize these individuals, who were civilians,lived in unsanitary conditions – providing clues to how citizens lived during the 3rd and 4th centuries.The findings also show diseases are capable of leaving traces of the bacteria in human DNA, along with integrating with it, for thousands of years following the person's death.
Trench fever was initially said to have started during the First World War.
The illness spread by body lice through the British Expeditionary Forces, who were living in damp conditions in the trenches.Experts estimate around 380,000 to 520,000 members of the army was plagued with the disease, which caused debilitating effects and left a number of men unable to perform on the battlefield.
The symptoms include fevers, muscle and joint aches, pain behind the eyes, headaches, rashes and liver and spleen enlargement – all of which relapsed in five-day cycles.
The team from USF conducted a project to better understand the dietary habits and health of the Christian population living there during the 3rd and 4th centuries, along with uncovering the prevalence of trench fever among ancient populations.
The team gathered a total of 400 teeth from the skeletons, which were 'washed with sterile water and gradually dried, and the dental pulp was extracted using rotating disk instruments,' reads the study published in PLOS, and DNA was then taken from each sample.
The extracted DNA was then tested for B. quintana, which revealed contradicting evidence of long-standing beliefs about trench fever.
The team found 20.1 percent of the teeth belonging to civilians showed traces of the bacteria, while only 17.9 percent of those from military personal tested positive.
More surprisingly, 34 of the skeletons found buried in the catacombs of St. Lucia in Syracuse, Sicily had signs of trench fever in their teeth, Atlas Obscura reports.
Davide Tanasi, an associate professor with USF's History Department, said: 'Once contracted, there are diseases, like trench fever, that can leave traces within your DNA and can integrate your DNA with further information.'
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.
Tanasi says the discovery sheds light on the complex history of trench fever and begins answering historical questions about the lives of Christian citizens in this region during the 3rd and 4th centuries.
'Archaeology isn't just the study of the past, but it's something that can make the present better through the study of the past,' he said.
'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.'
The study also paints a picture of how unsanitary life must have been some 2,000 years ago if the ancient Romans showed since of the disease.
Life in the WWI trenches were unsanitary, along with being cold and damp, which led to a numb er of infections and diseases
The researchers explain that a British military doctor on the western front of the First World War reported the first case of recurrent fever in a soldier who presented with a headache, dizziness, and severe pain in the lower back and leg.
After more causes were reported, the disease began to be known as 'trench fever.'
The published studies explains that B.quintana lives in the gastrointestinal tract of lice, which would be released through the insects feces.
If this occurred while the lice was on a human, its feces would penetrate the person's body through damaged skin and enter the bloodstream.
And since the 1900s, the bacteria has been re-emerging among the homeless population.