"James has died of dysentery." Another common diarrheal disease you likely remember from The Oregon Trail, dysentery is caused by the consumption of contaminated water, like cholera and typhoid. There are actually two different forms of dysentery; one form is caused by Shigella bacteria (also known as shigellosis), and the other is caused by Entamoeba histolytica, an amoebic parasite. E. histolytica causes milder disease, but is more difficult to treat than that caused by the Shigella bacteria. No matter which form of dysentery you have, the symptoms can include anything from mild diarrhea to severe, bloody diarrhea with a fever, cramps, vomiting, and even pain and complications outside the intestines.
Dysentery has been known as a disease for quite some time, with case reports dating back to the 1200s. In light of the recent presidential inauguration in the United States, it is interesting to note that one of our own U.S. presidents suffered from dysentery on the very day of his inauguration. In the weeks leading up to James Buchanan's inauguration in 1857, he came down with dysentery. He spent the two weeks before March 4, inauguration day, in seclusion in an attempt to be well enough for the ceremony. He even turned down a dinner invitation from the famed Jefferson Davis in a letter in which Buchanan said he was "now living with great caution." Buchanan was well enough by March 4 to be successfully sworn in without incident.
While dysentery is considered a fairly rare disease in modern times, it is still estimated that there are 170 million cases each year, along with 14,000 deaths. A recent increase of cases in Zimbabwe has caught much public attention. Corruption within the country has led to a suspected misuse of funds within the government. The Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC), which currently holds the presidency and other governmental positions, has been accused of using the country's money to buy cars and fund their 2018 political campaign instead of building infrastructure and dealing with water sanitation issues. Because proper water sanitation is essential for preventing a disease like dysentery, critics of the government believe the members of the MDC are responsible for the current cases of both typhoid and dysentery that have been spreading through Zimbabwe.
Although dysentery has existed for hundreds of years, our approach to treatment now is not very different from times gone by. Typically, dysentery clears by itself, so the only remedy is to provide a patient with fluids to prevent dehydration. While antibiotics can be prescribed for dysentery caused by Shigella, instances of antibiotic resistance in Shigella have been on the rise since the 1940s, making many classes of drugs ineffective. Recent work has found that probiotics may play a role in helping to reduce disease duration and intensity in Shigella dysentery, but further work will be required before probiotics can be used for patient treatment.. Treatment of amoebic dysentery, on the other hand, is still almost purely reliant on simply relieving the symptoms.
As has been highlighted in the cases of cholera, typhoid, and dysentery, sanitary drinking water is the key for the prevention of disease. While many countries are focusing efforts on improving water sanitation, it is a long road to improve an entire country's infrastructure enough to provide all residents with clean water. But support for these initiatives continues to pour in from other countries and private foundations alike, keeping alive the hope for a future with clean drinking water for all.