What is dysentery?

Thursday, October 22, 2009
Thai survivor. Photo: Getty Images
Dysentery is a disease that primarily affects the intestines. Usually found in poorer areas of the world, the Shigella bacteria causes diarrhoea along with the passing of mucus and blood. Although dysentery is a relatively easy disease to cure, mortality rates can be high, and particularly among children.

There are two types of dysentery: amoebic and bacillary. Amoebic dysentery is usually passed on through amoeba cysts in contaminated food and water.

Diarrhoea is not so much a disease in itself but a symptom of other infections. However, it can cause rapid dehydration of the body and depletes the store of sodium, which is essential for the body to function healthily. As a rule of thumb, if you lose 10 percent or more of your body fluid, you are likely to die.

What are the symptoms of dysentery?

  • Bloody, watery stools - passed frequently
  • Pus and mucus in human waste
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Severe abdominal cramps

How would I contract dysentery?
Usually the illness is passed by coming into contact with contaminated water or food and this is one of the reasons why dysentery is more prevalent in developing countries than in the West. Inadequate sewerage systems and lack of water purification infrastructure mean that there is more margin for contact with the particular bacteria. Dysentery may also be spread by flies, and by handling items that have been infected by a carrier. These items might include door handles, toilet seats and so on.

What can I do to prevent getting dysentery?
The main thing is to always drink water that you know is from a safe source. If you're travelling, always drink bottled water and make sure that the seal has not been tampered with (some places refill empty bottles with tap water). Wash your hands thoroughly after visiting the toilet and also before mealtimes. Peel fruit and vegetables and wash them thoroughly in clean water before eating them.

There are some charities that work in poorer countries to educate people about the need to use a specific area as a toilet, about hand washing, about disposing of human waste in a safe fashion and, in some cases, about breast-feeding only your child. Some areas also use human excrement as a fertiliser for crops: this can cause outbreaks of dysentery.

How is dysentery cured?
The illness is usually eradicated by giving antibiotics to rid the body of the offending bacteria and, in the case of amoebic dysentery, the cysts and amoebas that are causing the problem. Further antibiotics may also be given to cure any associated infection.

In the case of amoebic dysentery, abscesses may form on bodily organs such as the liver and brain. If this is the case, specific drugs may be administered to cure the patient and to reduce the pain felt by him or her.

To combat the effects of dehydration, oral salts may be supplied along with plenty of clean water.

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