It’s everything we don’t want to talk about. We wish it would just curl up and disappear. You cringe when someone mentions his or her own movements. You just don’t want to know. We pretend the toilet doesn’t exist. For some people though it is an alienating and distressing experience that can get out of control. Imagine living with a dehabilitating disease for years avoiding the simple joys in life, like dinner parties and weekends away with friends, just accepting the symptoms because they are what you have learnt to live with; until you are finally diagnosed. Diseases of the bowel are anti-social and destructive to your lifestyle. It’s not much fun spending most of your time in search of a toilet.

Chron’s disease and ulcerative colitis are generally grouped together as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). More than 23,000 Australians are inflicted. Approximately 10,000 have Chron’s and 13,000 have ulcerative colitis. Chron’s disease is chronic, life-long and is a disease which causes the immune system to attack and inflame the body’s own tissues, most often the gastrointestinal tract. Ulcerative colitis also is an inflammatory disease that is characterised by inflammation and ulceration of the inner lining (mucosa) of the colon.

Both diseases have similar symptoms and this can make it difficult initially to differentiate between the two. There are two sad facts: there is no known cure as yet and they are diseases that primarily affect the young. Most cases are diagnosed before the age of 30, although there are cases that are diagnosed in the later decades of life. IBD is uncommon in children but does occur. The same symptoms develop in children as in adults. Scientists believe that both diseases may be due to a defect in the body’s immune system, its natural protection against diseases.

The first large national study of the treatment of Chron’s disease is currently being undertaken solely in Australia. The trial involves 212 volunteers over the age of 18 years with Chron’s disease and is being conducted in up to 20 centres Australia wide. The trial will run for two years. ‘Initial reports from a much smaller open trial in Britain have shown promising results using a combination of antibiotics,’ says Associate Professor Warwick Selby, a gastroenterologist at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Our trial is unique because it’s aimed at ensuring people remain well long after they have finished the treatment. We want to measure the rate of remission after the first 16 weeks and any possible relapses after one, two and three years. Patients will be given the appropriate medication and be provided free to participating volunteers. We hope to have it finished by the middle of the year but we need more people in order to realise its full value, says Professor Selby.