The Coconut-Dysentery Problem

April 25, 2010

Extracts from a two page note probably written in November 1942.


The fact that many people have been reported sick with bacillary dysentery immediately after eating coconut leads to the problem of how the infection is conveyed to the nut.

The possibilities which have been advanced:

(1) The bacillus, being water bourne, is conveyed via the roots & trunk via the sap which in the tropics rises rapidly up the tree. The fact that sap is conveyed upwards by osmosis and thus is most likely to prohibit the passage of the bacillus, appears to be ruled out as minerals are conveyed by this process.  The chief objection to the argument is that no sap would enter the nut when the latter is ripe as the vascular bundles are then severed.

(2) The bacillus is carried by the pollinating insects to the stigma of the flower & eventually finds its way into the  embryo by the same way as the pollen.  This seems even more unlikely particularly as the bacillus would need to live many weeks while the nut is in the process of developing before it could hope to come into contact with a human being.

(3) The nut when opened is contaminated with the dysentery bacillus, for example by dirty hands or houseflies.  This would seem to be the most likely explanation but it does not account for the fact that cases have occurred among people who have eaten only small portions of the nut, & immediately after the latter has been opened, so as to more or less exclude indirect contamination.

(4) There is no contamination of the nut at all.  All that happens is that the copra sets up an irritation of the bowel causing a form of enteritis.  Most people in the tropics harbour the dysentery bacillus in their intestines even when they are healthy but the latter are prevented from developing & setting up symptoms owing to the overpowering effects of the body’s antibodies….  But when enteritis is set up the germs find a medium in which to grow with the result that the usual dysentery symptoms are produced.  This would seem to be the correct explanation, particularly as dysentery patients treated and discharged as cured from hospital often have a relapse as soon as they are put on the coarse POW diet of practically rice bust (sic) after previously receiving a considerable proportion of European food.  In this case it was the enteritis set up by the change in diet; the dysentery bacillus could not have been present in the rice since this had already been boiled and in any case it would, if contaminated, have affected the entire personnel eating it.

Book B, 87-88

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