19.5 Protozoan Infections of the Gastrointestinal Tract

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the most common protozoans that can cause infections of the GI tract
  • Compare the major characteristics of specific protozoan diseases affecting the GI tract

Like other microbes, protozoa are abundant in natural microbiota but can also be associated with significant illness. Gastrointestinal diseases caused by protozoa are generally associated with exposure to contaminated food and water, meaning that those without access to good sanitation are at greatest risk. Even in developed countries, infections can occur and these microbes have sometimes caused significant outbreaks from contamination of public water supplies.

Giardiasis

Also called backpacker’s diarrhea or beaver fever, giardiasis is a common disease in the United States caused by the flagellated protist Giardia lamblia.. To establish infection, G. lamblia uses a large adhesive disk to attach to the intestinal mucosa. The disk is comprised of microtubules. During adhesion, the flagella of G. lamblia move in a manner that draws fluid out from under the disk, resulting in an area of lower pressure that promotes its adhesion to the intestinal epithelial cells. Due to its attachment, Giardia also blocks absorption of nutrients, including fats.

Transmission occurs through contaminated food or water or directly from person to person. Children in day-care centers are at risk due to their tendency to put items into their mouths that may be contaminated. Large outbreaks may occur if a public water supply becomes contaminated. Giardia have a resistant cyst stage in their life cycle that is able to survive cold temperatures and the chlorination treatment typically used for drinking water in municipal reservoirs. As a result, municipal water must be filtered to trap and remove these cysts. Once consumed by the host, Giardia develops into the active tropozoite.

Infected individuals may be asymptomatic or have gastrointestinal signs and symptoms, sometimes accompanied by weight loss. Common symptoms, which appear one to three weeks after exposure, include diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, gas, greasy stool (because fat absorption is being blocked), and possible dehydration. The parasite remains in the colon and does not cause systemic infection. Signs and symptoms generally clear within two to six weeks. Chronic infections may develop and are often resistant to treatment. These are associated with weight loss, episodic diarrhea, and malabsorption syndrome due to the blocked nutrient absorption.

Diagnosis may be made using observation under the microscope. A stool ova and parasite (O&P) exam involves direct examination of a stool sample for the presence of cysts and trophozoites; it can be used to distinguish common parasitic intestinal infections. ELISA and other immunoassay tests, including commercial direct fluorescence antibody kits, are also used. The most common treatments use metronidazole as the first-line choice, followed by tinidazole. If the infection becomes chronic, the parasites may become resistant to medications.

  • Which problems can occur when trying to prevent giardiasis?

Disease Profile

Protozoan Gastrointestinal Infections

Protozoan GI infections are generally transmitted through contaminated food or water, triggering diarrhea and vomiting that can lead to dehydration. Rehydration therapy is an important aspect of treatment, but most protozoan GI infections can also be treated with drugs that target protozoans.

 

Figure 19.16 Details associated with the disease giardiasis, a protozoal infection of the GI tract.

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