Preventable illnesses

In January, influenza was once more flagged worldwide as a rising public health concern; as the increasing number of cases forced public health officials to declare that the flu epidemic was directly related to the personal health care behaviour patterns of societies, in that this public health issue was a preventable and manageable one.

Officials across the globe were all presenting similar alerts for the public to practise comprehensive safety precautions if the spread of illness was to be reduced. The CDC reported that 24 states had all reported flu-like illnesses and highlighted the deaths of 20 children due to influenza.

In Barbados, the chief medical officer stated that there was no cause for alarm, even though the United States had been severely affected by the flu. The chief also reiterated the ministry’s concern that the Barbadian public needed to mindful of the effects of flu and the need to remain vigilant and use the precautionary methods of hand washing and reducing physical contact with family and friends.

This week another public alert is being issued for another preventable and manageable illness – gastroenteritis. Less than 24 hours after Barbados issued the alert, Guyanese health authorities issued a similar alert. Guyanese authorities were reported as monitoring an outbreak in the northwest district where one person had already died from the illness. Reports said that the authorities through weekly surveillance had collected reports which indicated that there had been an increase in numbers since the middle of January, resulting in the deaths of two children due to severe dehydration.

Yesterday, a friend called in a very distraught manner saying that his young son had been diagnosed with the illness. He added that the doctors had advised him to be very cautious while caring for the child and it was very important that hand washing after providing care, and sanitising any utensil or area coming in contact with the infected person should be a priority.

However, his secondary comments I found to be a little alarming. He said that while he clearly understood the doctor’s advice, he was not to going be overly concerned about the illness spreading throughout the household, as this was not the first time that it had happened.

Based on the current public health alerts issued both in Barbados and Guyana, is important that this current illness be viewed and interpreted as documented by medical professionals. Gastroenteritis is a medical condition characterised by inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract that involves both the stomach and the small intestine resulting in some combination of diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain and cramping.

Gastroenteritis has also been referred to as gastro, stomach bug, and stomach virus. Although unrelated to influenza, it has also been called stomach flu and gastric flu.

Globally, most cases in children are caused by rotavirus. Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrhea among infants and young children. Rotavirus A, the most common species, causes more than 90 per cent of infections in humans. In adults, Norovirus and Campylobacter are more common.

Norovirus infection is characterised by nausea, forceful vomiting, watery diarrhea, abdominal pain, and in some cases, loss of taste. General lethargy, weakness, muscle aches, headache, coughs, and low-grade fever may occur. The disease is usually self-limiting, and severe illness is rare. A small number of people die, mostly the very young, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.

Campylobacter jejuni is now recognised as one of the main causes of bacterial foodborne disease in many developed countries. At least a dozen species of Campylobacter have been implicated in human disease. Less common causes include other bacteria (or their toxins) and parasites. Transmission may occur due to consumption of improperly prepared foods or contaminated water or via close contact with individuals who are infectious.

There is an irony in the comments from the father of the child diagnosed yesterday regarding his level of concern about preventing the illness from spreading throughout his household. His response to the doctor’s advice was not unexpected. Family practitioners have often said that many of their patients while mindful of the effects of the illness experienced by the person brought to them for medical treatment, many family members often are oblivious to some of the very basic steps which can eliminate the problem.

Another highly communicable illness is conjunctivitis or “pink eye”. Similar comments were also received by doctors when this illness was used as a comparison of personal health care reactions by family members, to other easily prevented or managed illnesses that are labelled as highly contagious.

No one likes being sick, away from work because of illness, or in extreme cases, hospitalised for intensive treatment. Yet most reported cases regarding communicable disease spread all attribute the spread of the illness to careless actions on the part of either the caregiver, or the infected person themselves.

Why is it that when individuals who are presenting symptoms of an illness, and it is recommended that they avoid all contact, or severely restrict personal contact with friends and loved ones, they refuse? One answer that I received to this question was one often heard in almost any country — “misery likes company”.

If you have a headache, the response is usually, “leave me alone and do not keep any noise around me”. However, the response to sickness is first a great deal of moaning and pleading for help; followed by the internationally accepted practiced plea: “Please do not leave me here like this! This is often followed by the question: “Can’t you see that I am in pain and I need help?”

Another practised comment is: “If it was you lying down here, I would not treat you like this, but don’t worry your time will come, and then you will see how it feels.”

Communicable diseases such as gastroenteritis, now spreading quickly throughout many countries can be easily reduced and often prevented by some simple conscious behaviours.

Be careful after you touch grocery trolleys, shake hands, or open the door after using the bathroom – even in your own home. Keep your hands away from your mouth, nose, and eyes by simply using a tissue and immediately discarding it instead of using it over and over again. Just because it has not happened to you yet does not give permission to ignoring the fact that it can happen — especially when it is preventable.

As a society that is constantly heralding our level of infrastructural development and education, it is time that we also begin to comprehensively implement the recommendations of public health professionals, and follow the preventive advice of family doctors.

Moaning and groaning does not reduce or stop the spread of a disease, it only camouflages the careless actions of those who come in contact with the sick person.

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