If you live in Cape Town it’s probably safe to assume that either you - or someone close to you - has had a bad case of gastro in the past 18 months. Certainly the subject of much speculation amongst my social circle lately has been why cases of gastro seem to be occurring with more frequency than ever before.
The most common theory was that as the water crisis worsened and the Cape Town municipality started to pull water from the bottom of our dams, they were dredging up all sorts of muck that our processing plants weren’t equipped to deal with. Whether this is factually true is up for debate, but it certainly was a popular theory around the water cooler.
In the same vein, a Facebook post from a plumber working for a large Cape Town firm did the rounds in March 2017 and was picked up on IOL, warning residents not to drink the tap water as it was causing gastro. He reportedly said “We’ve seen an increase in diarrhoea, even in our office people got sick. It could be from tap water and it could be due to dams running low on water. It could be that particles at the bottom of the dams could be getting into the filtration system. It’s like a car, when the petrol runs low, dirt from the bottom of the tank goes into the petrol filter, and it affects the car.”
The City was quick to respond, confirming that the message was a hoax and that Cape Town residents should take no notice. In a follow up IOL article Councillor Xanthea Limberg denied that water supplied by the City causes gastro, after Cape Town residents complained about water tasting “mouldy” and causing stomach pains. She said “the funny smell and taste of tap water was because of a naturally occurring mineral called geosmin, which has an “earthy, musty taste and odour” and not because it's being taken from the silty bottom of the reservoir.
City officials maintained that people were getting sick because Cape Town usually experiences a surge in diarrhoea cases during the warmer months. November to May has always been considered "surge season" for diarrhoea in Cape Town, due to warmer temperatures increasing the prevalence of certain contagious diseases.
Three pharmacies were also asked whether they had seen an unusual increase in gastro cases, but none of them had. MKem in Bellville, Jafmed in Ottery and Golden Acre Pharmacy in Cape Town city centre all agreed that the annual “diarrhoea season” was to blame.
But that was in 2017. An article published in May this year on Health 24 reported that, according to a city health official, “there has been an increase in cases of diarrhoea among children under the age of five in Cape Town” with a concern that “that good hygiene might be taking a back seat to water saving efforts to avoid Day Zero.” The article went on to remind Capetonians to “treat water as precious but to keep washing their hands regularly” in order to avoid cross contamination.
Closer to home, I asked a friend of mine who works as a GP in two Southern Suburbs practices whether she had seen an increase in gastro over the period of the water restrictions. She said “I’ve seen a mild increase in giardia amoeba type gastro which is water borne. And maybe more viral gastro, but that could be attributed to the early autumn and drop in evening temperatures in March which allowed viruses to be more prominent earlier than usual. But the tap water is still safe; no outbreaks of dysentery.”So, to answer to question “is the drought is making you sick?” I think the answer is quite probably yes, but just not in the way that everyone thinks. It’s highly unlikely that our water supply - which is rigorously tested by the City - is actually causing these outbreaks of gastro. It’s far more likely that poor hand hygiene practices - compromised in an effort to save water - are the culprit. Water is indeed precious, and should be treated as such, but good hand hygiene is of paramount importance and can be maintained using waterless products such as hand sanitising sprays and gels.