Not feeling so well lately? Stomach a bit rumbly after drinking that well water at your uncle's lake house last weekend? Before you rush off to the Minute Clinic or pore over WebMD, consider this — perhaps you've contracted Minnesota's most famous disease.
In December 1983, 122 residents of middle-Minnesota city Brainerd drank raw, unpasteurized milk from a local dairy. What ensued was an epidemic bizarre enough to weave itself into the historical fabric of the city — a nightmarish outbreak of unstoppable diarrhea that persisted for months on end.
The outbreak wasn't contagious. There were no other systemic signs of illness, such as fever, nausea, and vomiting, and antibiotic and antimicrobial treatment had no effect. Medical experts called it "idiopathic," meaning it occurred spontaneously and without a traceable root, and remarked on the disorder's "acute onset" and, uncomfortably enough, "marked urgency."
The phenomenon has been the subject of six published scientific studies, all of which have failed to conclusively identify a causative agent. In most cases, patients were afflicted for over a year.
The CDC defines Brainerd diarrhea, as it's come to be known in the gastroenterological community, as "a syndrome of acute onset of watery diarrhea lasting 4 weeks or longer." A 1992 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine documented cases of patients who had "become alarmed at the prospect of endless diarrhea," with explosive bowel movements occurring 5 to 25 times per day. One case in the study endured for 2 years and 7 months.
Ten outbreaks of Brainerd diarrhea have been documented since the initial (and largest) occurrence in Brainerd. The most studied case stems from a 72-person wave that hit Henderson County, Ill., in 1987 that was theoretically tied to untreated water. The only known case outside of the U.S. was documented in 58 passengers on a Galapagos Island cruise ship in 1992. The two most recent episodes — a 1996 outbreak that plighted 117 in Texas and a 1998 rash in Humboldt County, Calif., that only affected 23 — were tied to local restaurants. Through every instance, the illness has maintained the name of the humble Minnesota locale where it was first observed.
Scientists are basically just guessing at what might cause Brainerd diarrhea, but they do know that, despite a lack of medical therapies, the disease is self-limited. Though you may experience weight loss or colon ulcers, eventually you just crap yourself back to health.
So, if you experience a gut gurgling that persists for more than four weeks, it might not be a passing bug. You might be participating in one of Minnesota's most cryptic, often undercelebrated traditions — Brainerd diarrhea.