Body lice cases on rise among Edmonton’s homeless

By Keith Gerein, Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON - A tiny, blood-sucking parasite rarely seen in developed countries like Canada has been showing up with unusual frequency in recent months among Edmonton’s homeless population, an inner-city doctor says.

Dr. Mat Rose, medical director at Boyle McCauley Health Centre, said his staff is now seeing an average of one case a week of body lice, an indication there is insufficient access to public hygiene services such as laundering and bathing facilities.

“There was one fellow who was in last week, and after they stripped him down and sent him to the shower, they were sweeping up the lice, and they ended up with this little pile of them that was the size of a good-sized pancake,” Rose said Wednesday.

“The first time I saw it was around 2000, but it was a rare thing to see. In the last six months or a year we have seen a lot more cases. People can develop quite a burden of infestation.”

Body lice are bigger and are considered more of a health threat than their parasitic cousins, head and pubic lice, in that they can spread bacterial diseases such as trench fever and typhus, said infectious disease specialist Dr. Stan Houston.

The sesame seed-sized creatures live on clothing but move onto the body to feed, biting through the skin and gorging on human blood. Infestations, which leave victims with a series of itchy bites, are typically found in people who live in unhygienic and overcrowded conditions.

“I’ve worked in Africa for seven years and in Edmonton with a lot of inner-city patients for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen it before last Thursday when a patient of mine came in,” Houston said. “This is not normal thing like the other (kinds of lice). This is a hard indicator of Albertans living in really awful conditions of deprivation, poverty and bad sanitation.”

In reading about the bugs, he said the most recent prominent cases are from refugees camps in Burundi and from the streets of Ethiopia.

The lice are effectively warded off through regular bathing and clean clothes, he said.

As to why there is an increase in cases, Rose said it may be related to an increased demand for shelter spaces. As more people are turned away, many have little choice but to stay in a crowded apartments or rooming houses where they share the floor with four or five friends. Such places may have unsanitary public bathrooms, discouraging bathing, while laundry facilities may be non-existent or too expensive, he said.

“The more crowded people are, the greater the chance for the lice to hop from one person to another. So I think that’s how things are getting transmitted,” Rose said.

Increased demand for shelter spaces may also mean there is increased pressure on the public showers or laundry facilities provided by social service agencies, he said.

However, spokesman Alex Abboud of Homeward Trust — the agency created to coordinate efforts to end homelessness in Edmonton — said it’s unclear what may be causing the issue. He said shelter usage has been up a bit recently, though the agency is not aware of any major spike in demand.

Rose said that when people with lice infestations come into the Boyle McCauley clinic, they are immediately sent into the shower while their clothes are laundered or destroyed. The centre doesn’t receive funding for these services but staff provide them anyway to make sure patients go away healthy, he said.

He said that while recent government efforts have focused on increasing the housing supply, more must be done to address the availability of basic health services and educate people on how to look after themselves.

Part of the solution could be increasing the number of low-cost or free laundry facilities and providing old hospital gowns for people to wear while their clothes are being cleaned.

“The appearance of body lice indicates that the basic determinants of health are not being adequately met, which in Alberta, in 2013, is not a good thing,” Rose said.

“We found a solution for the people who come to see us. It reflects our philosophy that it’s easier to launder someone’s clothing and give them a shower than it is to see them three or four weeks later when they are covered in these infected sores or they are anemic because lice have sucked so much blood out of them.”

Bill Moore-Kilgannon, executive director of the left-leaning advocacy group Public Interest Alberta, said the body lice issue should be a wake-up call to provincial policy-makers.

He said a new poverty-reduction strategy the province is working on should have a major focus on prevention of health problems, and help for people who are now falling through the cracks of social supports. Such efforts are a good investment because they will save the health system money down the road, he said.

By Keith Gerein, Edmonton Journal

kgerein@edmontonjournal.com

This article was published in the Edmonton Journal on February 13, 2013. Read the full article on the Edmonton Journal website.

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