Contaminated food and water are two of the biggest culprits that spread disease around the world. One of the most prevalent diseases found in countries with poor sanitation efforts is amebiasis. This disease is caused by entamoeba histolytica, a single celled parasite.
Who is at Risk?
Virtually anyone can get amebiasis and it is most common in developing and third world countries where sanitary conditions are poor. This disease is usually not seen in the United States unless an immigrant from one of the third world countries visits here. Travelers to these countries can also bring the disease home with them.
Gay men who have sex with each other can contract the disease, but they may not exhibit any symptoms. In addition, crowded living areas and institutions with poor water treatment and waste management may also harbor this one-celled parasitic entity.
Primary Ways Infection Occurs
This little E. histolytica parasite is easily transmitted to humans. It is often found in the stool (feces) of infected people so anything that has come into contact with the stool becomes contaminated.
This could be something simple as the person not washing their hands after wiping in the bathroom and then touching the surfaces of bathroom fixtures. You could unknowingly touch the same surfaces and then rub your mouth and introduce the parasite in that fashion. Ingesting food and water contaminated with the E. histolytica is another way amebiasis is transmitted.
Symptoms of Amebiasis
About 10% of the people who pick up the amebiasis infection actually get sick and display symptoms. For the most part, this illness is not serious and you will recover fully within a week or two. Some of the symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain and stomach cramping.
If you are unlucky enough to get a more severe form, this is called amebic dysentery. Symptoms of this include the milder ones listed above in addition to fever and bloody show in the stools.
On rare occasions does the parasite travel to the liver, brain or lungs. Typical incubation time from exposure to amebiasis to presenting symptoms is usually anywhere from 1 week to a month.
Diagnosis and Treatment of the Disease
Stool samples are often required to make a diagnosis and several may need to be submitted as the parasite may not be in every sample. In addition, a misdiagnosis may be made as the E. histolytica parasite looks very similar to another ameba parasite called E. dispar.
However, the E. dispar does not present any symptoms whatsoever, so if you do have presenting symptoms of amebiasis chances are that the E. histolytica is really present and you were misdiagnosed.
Antibiotics are the typical treatment of amebiasis. A physician will normally prescribe two different antibiotics, one after the other, if you have had exhibiting symptoms of the disease. This is the best option to ensure that the parasite causing the illness truly dies.
When you travel abroad, be sure to take proper precautions to ensure that you avoid amebiasis. Only drink bottled water with a sealed cap or drink carbonated beverages from sealed bottles or cans. In addition, you can also boil your water supply for about a minute to kill the E. histolytica parasite as well as anything else that can cause disease.
Avoid eating fresh fruits and vegetables as well as uncooked meats and seafood as these may have been living near contaminated waters. Do not eat or drink unpasteurized dairy products and avoid food and drink items sold be vendors along the streets and sidewalks.
Also, always wash your hands and avoid rubbing your eyes or sticking your fingers in your mouth as you could pick up this parasite from a variety of places. These are the best ways to protect yourself when traveling.
Risk of spreading infection is low if the infected person is treated with antibiotics and practices good personal hygiene. This includes thorough handwashing with soap and water after using the toilet, after changing diapers, and before handling or preparing food.
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Stauffer W, Ravdin JI. Entamoeba histolytica: an update. Curr Opin Infect Dis. 2003;16(5):479-85
Ravdin JI. Amebiasis. Clin Infect Dis. 1995;20:1453-66
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