Acute Gastroenteritis in Ireland, North and South - A Telephone Survey

Date: September 2003

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Acute gastroenteritis is a common but frequently preventable illness. Its symptoms include a combination of diarrhoea and vomiting, and occasionally abdominal pain, cramps, and fever. The majority of cases are caused by infectious agents including viruses, bacteria, and protozoa. Infectious acute gastroenteritis can be acquired and spread in a number of ways: through close contact with other infected persons, through direct and indirect contact with infected farm animals or pets, or through consuming contaminated food or water. A small proportion of acute gastroenteritis cases are not infectious and can be caused by, for example, pregnancy, bowel disorders, and medication. The focus of this study is on infectious acute gastroenteritis and non-infectious causes have been excluded.

In Ireland, North and South, there are three main sources of information on acute gastroenteritis: routine notifications made by medical practitioners, laboratory reporting, and outbreak surveillance. While these provide useful information, they do not provide a complete picture of the burden of this condition. In addition, many people with acute gastroenteritis do not make contact with their doctor. It is important to know about these people in order to understand the full magnitude of the problem and establish the need for prevention initiatives. In addition, there may be significant economic and social costs associated with this illness. One way to identify the true extent of acute gastroenteritis is to measure illness in the community and not just at the point where the individual has made contact with the health services.

This study was undertaken to estimate the frequency and characteristics of acute gastroenteritis in the community in Ireland, North and South. It also looked at the healthseeking behaviour of those affected and the impact on work and school attendance. The findings of this survey will lead to better interpretation of current information, and will be used to inform policy on public health leading to better planning for the prevention, surveillance, and control of acute gastroenteritis. A random selection of households, North and South, were contacted by telephone and one member of each household was selected to complete the interview. Almost 10,000 people were interviewed over the 12-month period from December 2000 to November 2001. Of the households contacted, 84.1% participated in the study.

Of the 9,903 respondents surveyed, 394 people reported suffering from acute gastroenteritis in the 4 weeks prior to interview. This corresponds to 4.5% of the population of Ireland, North and South, or a frequency of 0.60 episodes per person per year. If extrapolated to the entire population on the island, this means there are approximately 3.2 million episodes of acute gastroenteritis each year, or 8,800 new episodes each day. The average duration of illness was estimated to be four days. This suggests that there are 35,000 people ill each day in Ireland, North and South. The groups most at risk were children and younger adults. There was also more illness in households with at least one member under 18 years of age.