Chronic Bartonella quintana bacteremia in homeless patients

N Engl J Med. 1999 Jan 21;340(3):184-9. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199901213400303.


Background: Infection with Bartonella quintana can cause trench fever, endocarditis, bacillary angiomatosis, and peliosis. An outbreak of bacteremia due to B. quintana has been reported among homeless people in Seattle, and the seroprevalence is high among homeless people in both the United States and Europe. Body lice are known to be the vectors of B. quintana.

Methods: We studied all the homeless people who presented in 1997 to the emergency departments of the University Hospital, Marseilles, France. Blood was collected for microimmunofluorescence testing for antibodies against B. quintana and for culture of the bacterium. Body lice were collected and analyzed by the polymerase chain reaction and sequencing of a portion of the citrate synthase gene of B. quintana.

Results: In 10 of 71 homeless patients (14 percent), blood cultures were positive for B. quintana, and 21 of the patients (30 percent) had high titers of antibody against the organism. A total of 17 patients (24 percent) had evidence of recent infection (bacteremia or seroconversion). Tests of lice from 3 of the 15 patients from whom they were collected were positive for B. quintana. The homeless people with B. quintana bacteremia were more likely to have been exposed to lice (P=0.002), were more likely to have headaches (P=0.03) and severe leg pain (P<0.001), and had lower platelet counts (P=0.006) than the homeless people who were seronegative for B. quintana and did not have bacteremia; 8 of the 10 patients with bacteremia were afebrile. Five patients had chronic bacteremia, as indicated by positive blood cultures over a period of several weeks.

Conclusions: In an outbreak of urban trench fever among homeless people in Marseilles, B. quintana infections were associated with body lice in patients with nonspecific symptoms or no symptoms.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Bacterial / blood
  • Bacteremia / complications
  • Bacteremia / epidemiology*
  • Bacteremia / microbiology*
  • Bartonella quintana / genetics
  • Bartonella quintana / immunology
  • Bartonella quintana / isolation & purification*
  • Chronic Disease
  • DNA, Bacterial / analysis
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Female
  • France / epidemiology
  • Homeless Persons / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pediculus / microbiology
  • Seroepidemiologic Studies
  • Trench Fever / complications
  • Trench Fever / epidemiology*
  • Trench Fever / microbiology
  • Trench Fever / transmission


  • Antibodies, Bacterial
  • DNA, Bacterial