Gastrointestinal Tract can also serve as a Transmission Route for COVID-19 – says Experts at ASSOCHAM’s ‘Illness to Wellness’ Series

COVID-19 patients

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), one of the apex trade associations of India concluded the tenth edition of the ‘Illness to Wellness’ series themed webinar on ‘Digestive Health In COVID-19 Era’. The event saw an elite panel of leading gastroenterologists discuss the possible transmission of Coronavirus through fecal-oral transmission and the viability of a COVID vaccine.

Supported by the hygiene brand SAVLON, the programme, an innovative and comprehensive approach to cascade awareness through wellness campaigns to address preventive healthcare management and to promote health, hygiene, and well-being of people, the webinar saw renowned panelists speak at length on how the number of patients experiencing GI symptoms exceed those suffering from respiratory symptoms.

Speaking on the issue, Padma Shri Dr.(Prof) D.K. Bhargava, Senior Consultant, Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital said, “Gastrointestinal tract can also serve as a route of transmission for COVID-19. Although, it has not been proven completely, scientific evidence points to the probability of fecal-oral transmission serving as another route. Symptoms of these are mostly nausea, anorexia, vomiting, abdominal distension and diarrhoea in about 20% of cases. Sometimes, in close to 50% of cases, intestinal symptoms precede respiratory symptoms. It has been documented that in more than 50% cases, the stool samples of COVID-19 positive patients contain RNA and nucleic acid particles. They represent the presence of the virus in the stool so the faecal-oral transmission can occur. So, one should be very careful when handling this stool. In some cases, it has been documented that patients may not have any respiratory symptoms but showcase only gastrointestinal tract symptoms.”

Padma Shri Dr. Saumitra Rawat, Chairman and Head Surgical Gastroenterology & Liver Transplant, Sri Ganga Ram Hospital further elaborated on the topic saying, “Patients having GI symptoms are usually having milder symptoms of COVID-19 than those experiencing respiratory tract symptom. For patients who have the virus is in the respiratory tract, the stool sample remains positive for about 15 days and then the patient becomes negative. The fecal sample positivity for patients showing GI symptoms usually lasts for nearly 28 days, so strong precautions need to be taken. Though the GI symptoms start early, sometimes, the respiratory symptoms can develop later. In some cases, the patient may have only GI symptoms. And even if the patient continues to have GI symptoms then it is of milder form.”

Commenting on how poor lifestyle choices of Indians contribute to gastrointestinal issues, Mr. Anil Rajput, Chairman, ASSOCHAM CSR Council said, “In India, unhealthy eating habits, poor lifestyle, unclean water and improper sanitation has led to a surge in digestive disorders. It is well known that stress and anxiety, high blood sugar, insomnia and other degenerating habits can alter and damage the gut microbiome. Taking precautions against these is of greater importance in the backdrop of the pandemic. Besides having a balanced diet, incorporating pre- and pro-biotic supplements can go a long way in improving and maintaining digestive health. Curd in that regard is extremely beneficial but in today’s hostile environment, many might need stronger supplements.”

Dr. Rajesh Kesari, Founder and Director, Total Care Control who moderated the webinar by placing poignant questions before the panelists, added to the discussion by sharing a recent study he had come across. “A survey by IMA said that when they surveyed about thousand COVID positive patients, they found that most of the patient’s family members had GI symptoms that did not progress to fever and other problems. However, for one or two family members, it did progress further. The other symptoms they faced were loss of taste and loose motion.”

The panelists also spoke at length about the world’s COVID vaccine readiness by sharing details of the various stages of development being carried out across the world. Dr. Vasudevan K.R., Senior, Consultant & Head Liver Transplantation & GI Surgery, Institute of Gastroenterology & Liver Transplant, PSRI Hospital though warned, that a vaccine does not necessarily mean that it will provide complete protection against COVID infection.

“The intention of the vaccine is to try and minimize the burden of the disease on the population and the healthcare system. It is not a cure. As a patient, if you expect that a tablet or an injection can keep you safe from the virus by not taking any precautions then you are very wrong. The purpose of the vaccine is such that even if you do get infected, you get COVID in a milder form. We hope that the vaccine is there soon and whenever it is there, the existing fear will be gone. Also, the phenomenon of not being able to provide ICU beds due to the overburdening situation will be controlled and reduced. We will get on with life, but the fact is that we can not stop wearing masks because a vaccine has been created. Precautions will still have to be taken,” he said.

Speaking on the importance of developing immunity, the panellists agreed that maintaining a balanced diet with immune-boosting food items such as green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits along with optimal calorie intake, unsaturated fat oils, and low sugar can help in the long battle against COVID. They also suggested taking additional supplements for those needing it to maintain a healthy microbiome in the intestine.