Not just flu

January 31, 2008

Not just flu

By Shoks Mzolo

Contaminated food and water are the main causes of this disease, which can be fatal

Amid HIV/Aids, XDR-TB and other serious diseases, few people consider the effect of gastroenteritis, which can be fatal to children aged five and younger as well as the elderly. The disease is commonly known as stomach flu and it is not caused by the influenza viruses.

Harvard Health Publications describes the disease as an inflammation of the digestive system. Symptoms in children and adults include diarrhoea (with or without vomiting), abdominal cramps, bloating and nausea. Editor of the SA Medical Association journal Dr Bridget Farham says illness, which results in serious dehydration, usually subsides on its own within three days. Farham cites fluid replacement (with the correct composition of electrolytes – salt, sugar and water) as the mainstay of treatment in the absence of a vaccine.

Though the department of health cannot supply accurate prevalence data, scientists estimate that the disease is one of the three leading causes of child mortality in SA and most of the developing countries, while it’s reported that in the US viral gastroenteritis is the second most common illness.

Stomach flu, which peaks in summer due to rain and heat, is spread by unsafe water and poor sanitation – much like typhoid and cholera. Though it’s fairly easy to contain the spread, by means of basic hygiene like regular and proper hand washing, the disease remains a threat to informal settlements, townships and rural areas where there is a significant backlog of running water provision. "A good proportion of our society doesn’t have access to running water in the home, so already, we’re facing a serious risk there. Remember that the cause boils down to contaminated food and water," says Dr Tony Westwood, general paedia-trician at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.

Says Dr Madoda Nkosi: "People tend to confuse gastro-enteritis with food poisoning because the symptoms are similar." Though noting that the infections are present throughout the year, this Sowetan GP says there is often a particular surge in December – the festive season. He says prevalence is worrisome and estimates that two out of 10 patients he sees are diagnosed with gastroenteritis.

Westwood says "every child will have at least one episode of stomach flu". Breast-fed infants are in an advantageous position as this method of feeding has "many protective factors against gastroenteritis", he adds.

"Unfortunately, we don’t have a strong culture of breastfeeding. For children on formula (milk), the risk of getting the disease is heightened. Also, malnutrition makes it easy to get gastroenteritis.

"Vomiting and loose watery and frequent stool in children leads to dehydration. Like adults, children lose their appetite. But it’s dehydration that can be so dangerous to small children, it can kill," he warns.

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