Infectious diseases of the gut can occur at any time, but in a flood situation, the number of cases can skyrocket.

If you have encountered flood water, you will notice its color and smell.

Chances are it is filled with all kinds of filth, which can bring about some serious gut infections, including fatal diseases.

There are various types of water-borne infections that can affect your gut if you ingest or have skin contact with contaminated water.

Taking the right precautions is especially important for those who are cleaning up their premises or staying at flood relief centers during and after this natural disaster.

It’s all in the water

Flood water is like a soup of infections, which can range from something as minor as conjunctivitis to more serious conditions like respiratory tract infections, leptospirosis and dengue.

One of the most dangerous diseases that can happen during a flood is infectious diarrhoea.

Diarrhoea is defined as the passing of loose and watery stools three or more times a day.

When we talk about diseases that cause diarrhoea, there are a few categories, such as food poisoning, cholera, dysentery and other bacterial infections.

The following are the different types of intestinal infections that commonly occur during and just after a flood.

> Dysenters

Dysentery is an infection that results in intestinal inflammation.

This causes diarrhoea that is mixed with mucus and blood.

It spreads through contact with food or water that has been tainted with infected faecal matter.

It is mostly caused by the Shigella bacteria, although it can also be caused by other types of bacteria or amoebae / parasites.

Young children are usually the ones to get infected as they lack awareness about proper hygiene.

Among its symptoms are fever, abdominal pain, loose stools mixed with blood and mucus, and vomiting.

These symptoms usually last three to seven days, after which the patient recovers.

If the patient does not recover, he / she will have to go on antibiotics.

Increasing water consumption is an absolute must in order to prevent dehydration.

> Cholera

Another example of an intestinal infection is cholera.

It is easily transmissible by food or water, and is caused by the Vibrio cholerae bacteria.

This disease results in severe diarrhoea, which, in turn, causes dehydration.

In extreme cases, it can even lead to death.

Its main symptom is watery stools that can occur a few hours up until five days after exposure.

At times, however, a person can be infected, but have no symptoms.

Dehydration needs to be treated promptly, and includes oral rehydration salts and intravenous (IV) fluid replacement.

These are the mainstay of treatments for diarrhoea.

> Salmonellosis

This infection, caused by the Salmonella bacteria, commonly results in fever, diarrhoea and stomach cramps.

It is also known as typhoid fever.

Common sources of infection are contaminated food or water, and exposure to infected animal faeces, which are very likely to happen in any flood situation.

Important treatments include early antibiotic therapy, which come in oral form for a mild disease and IV injections for severe infections.

One unique feature of salmonellosis is the ability of the carrier to infect others without knowing it.

This is as the person will not have any symptoms, but can spread the bacteria to those they come in contact with.

This is why those whose work involves handling food have to be vaccinated with a typhoid vaccine prior to employment here.

Apart from the infections mentioned above, there are a few other bacterial infections that can cause serious diarrhoea.

Viral infections that cause diarrhoea can also produce similar symptoms.

An example would be a rotaviral infection, which is common in children, but less common in the context of a flood situation.

Things to prioritise

We are still facing the Covid-19 pandemic along with its infections and transmissions.

The risks are especially high at flood relief centers and need to be handled with caution.

Generally speaking, bacterial and viral infections, including Covid-19, occur due to lack of food or water hygiene, and close contact due to overcrowding.

Certain steps need to be prioritized, as most flood victims will be placed under one roof at flood relief centers.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Ensure a clean water supply.
  • Check the source of donated food – or any food – and when it was prepared.
  • Maintain clean and sanitary toilet and bathing facilities.
  • Encourage breastfeeding for babies to avoid hygiene issues related to bottle use.
  • Frequently wash your hands with soap and use an alcohol handrub if water and soap are not easily available.
  • Cover and treat cuts or wounds properly to avoid infection.
  • Avoid swimming or playing in floodwaters as it increases the risks of getting water-borne infections, drowning and encountering wild animals such as snakes and lizards.
  • Lastly, wear gloves, boots, a face mask and face shield when you are cleaning up after a flood so that you don’t accidentally get smeared or splashed with the tainted flood water or mud.

Be safe and take care, everyone.

Dr Muhammad Shahruddin is a consultant internal medicine physician. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only, and should not be considered as medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this article. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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