The Causes and Treatment of Dysentery

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Dysentery is not a disease but a symptom of a potentially deadly illness. The term refers to any case of infectious bloody diarrhea, a scourge that kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide every year. Most of the victims live in developing areas with poor sanitation, but sporadic cases can pop up anywhere in the world.

What Causes Dysentery?

Dysentery is the body’s response to an unwanted visitor in the digestive system. The possible culprits include a parasitic amoeba called Entamoeba histolytica or a number of bacteria, including salmonella and shigella. An infection of E. histolytica is called amebiasis, and any resulting bloody diarrhea is called amebic dysentery. Infections of shigella bacteria, called shigellosis, can lead to bacillary dysentery.

While cases of amebic dysentery tend to be isolated and sporadic, epidemics of bacillary dysentery can sweep through entire villages, cities, or regions. Every year, bacillary dysentery kills roughly six times as many people as amebic dysentery does.

How Do People Contract Dysentery?

The E. histolytica amoeba and the shigella bacteria often thrive in food and water contaminated by human feces. Large outbreaks of bacillary dysentery have occurred in communities where sewage mixes with drinking water. Fruits and vegetables grown with contaminated water are another common source of disease. Infections can also spread through households when people don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom, after changing diapers, or before handling food. Shigella infections tend to be especially contagious.

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