A tale of holiday woe

Dec 20, 2017


Laura Edison Kallen
Scientific Communications Officer, PATH

You know what makes for a really memorable holiday?


Viral diarrhea.


This year, a few days before my family was due to arrive at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, my mom came down with a very mild case of stomach flu. She recovered within a day, and she thought it may have just been something she ate.


My family is well aware of the dangers of diarrheal disease—my dad is a gastroenterologist, my mom and older sister are pharmacists, my younger sister is a nurse, and I had been hospitalized with rotavirus as a toddler and now work on diarrheal vaccines at PATH—so naturally we were all concerned about the potential of this illness spreading to others. My mom therefore took every precaution she could think of, including wiping down every inch of the house with Lysol. We descended upon the house as planned.


Including my parents, there were nine adults and one baby (my adorable nine-month-old nephew!) staying in the house for the week. We all felt fine when we first arrived, and six of us had even signed up to run a 5k Turkey Trot race for charity on Thanksgiving morning. After the first day, all of that changed.


My younger sister was the first to fall ill. It came on very suddenly: nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and extreme fatigue. We tried our best to isolate her in one part of the house and limit contact, but within a few hours her boyfriend started having symptoms. Then, in the middle of the night, my older sister and brother-in-law. We got a call in the early morning that my maternal grandparents, who weren’t staying in the house but had briefly visited, had gotten it, too. We were falling like diarrhea dominoes.


That morning was Thanksgiving, and my dad, my husband, and I were the only ones still well enough to run the Turkey Trot. So we ran it! (See photo evidence.)


Laura running the Turkey Trot
The run before the runs.


Then, a few hours after the run, it hit me, too. I went from Turkey Trot to turkey trots. I completely missed Thanksgiving dinner, opting for the toilet over the turkey (hooray for toilets!).


My husband fell ill the next day, and my other grandmother the day after that. Because of the extreme contagiousness of the disease and the intensity and sudden onset of the symptoms, we reasoned that it was viral, and most likely norovirus, since rotavirus usually only causes symptoms in young children.


The only two who were spared are my dad, who was likely immune because he had had stomach flu a few months prior, and my baby nephew. This, to me, was the true miracle of the week. An infection that is mild or short-lived in adults can be extremely dangerous for an infant or toddler. But he was likely protected by breastfeeding! Since my sister (his mom) had been infected with the virus, she was able to pass on antibodies to protect him. Isn’t breastfeeding amazing?!


It was a miserable experience, but it created some moments of hilarious family bonding. For example, at one point, my sister and husband were ill at the same time and could hear each other through a vent that ran between two of the bathrooms in the house. It was a veritable heave-and-response, and made them laugh in between the vomiting. We went through dozens of bottles of Gatorade—which is similar to ORS, but not quite as effective (I learned this recently!)—over just 5 days. And we joked that it was probably the first holiday ever where we all lost weight.


While we were all fortunate to recover without any serious health consequences, the experience was a stark reminder of why the work of DefeatDD and diarrheal disease scientists and advocates is so vitally important. Yes, diarrhea is gross, and yes, it can make us laugh. But diarrheal diseases like norovirus, rotavirus, ETEC, Shigella, and others are forces to be reckoned with—even to houses full of well-equipped medical and public health professionals. They can destroy a family’s holiday, but they can also destroy a family. The expenses of treating severe diarrhea in many parts of the world can ruin a family’s livelihood. When young children become infected and ORS, safe water, and/or urgent medical care are unavailable, diarrhea can and does turn deadly.


Fortunately, we have the tools to defeat diarrhea. With an integrated approach including vaccines, exclusive breastfeeding, nutrition, ORS, zinc, and safe water, sanitation, and hygiene, we can help keep diarrhea only a humorous inconvenience, not a tragedy. And help keep our precious little ones smiling.

Smiling with baby nephew
I'm a proud auntie, can you tell? 

After all, diarrhea—and its prevention and control—is a family affair.