Purpose: To determine the cause of an outbreak of chronic diarrhea and to define the clinical profile of the illness.
Design: A case series of patients with chronic diarrhea and case-control and cohort studies to determine the vehicle and cause of the illness.
Setting: Rural Henderson County, Illinois.
Patients: Seventy-two patients who had onset of chronic diarrheal illness between May and August 1987. Controls were local residents and eating companions who did not have diarrheal illness. A cohort study included 80 truck drivers from a local firm.
Methods and Measurements: Nonbloody diarrhea was characterized by extreme frequency (median, 12 stools/d), marked urgency, fecal incontinence, and weight loss (mean, 4.5 kg). The median incubation period was 10 days. Nine patients were hospitalized; none died. Diarrhea persisted in 87% of patients after 6 months. Antimicrobial therapy produced no clinical improvement. No bacterial, mycobacterial, viral, or parasitic agents known to be enteropathogenic were detected in stools or implicated water. Three of five small-bowel biopsies showed mild inflammatory changes. Mild inflammation was also seen in two of nine colonic biopsies. Case-control studies implicated a local restaurant (P = 0.0001, odds ratio = 19) and subsequently the untreated well water served in the restaurant (P = 0.04, odds ratio = 9.3) as the vehicle of transmission.
Conclusions: This is the first outbreak of chronic diarrhea linked to drinking untreated water. The causative agent and pathophysiologic mechanism of the illness remain elusive.