What Is Ulcerative Colitis? Japan's Abe Shinzo Resigns over Health Concerns

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has announced his resignation due to health problems. During a news conference on Friday, Abe said he was stepping down because of his ulcerative colitis, The Japan Times reported.

As the number of COVID-19 infections had fallen in the country in recent days and new measures had been put together ahead of winter, Abe said now was the right time to step down.

His resignation comes after the 65-year-old went to hospital twice in as many weeks.

Abe said his ulcerative colitis had worsened recently, and he did not want his illness to interfere with decision-making, BBC News reported. He apologised to the Japanese people for not completing his term in office.

Earlier in the day, NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, reported Abe had told his ruling Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) of his plans, citing sources close to the situation. Four days before, Abe set the record as the longest serving leader in the country's history.

Abe and LDP officials held a meeting on his decision at the party headquarters, according to NHK.

The politician has had ulcerative colitis for decades, having suffered with it since his teens. In 2007, he stepped down as prime minister citing the condition, but returned to the post in 2012. His term was due to end next September.

What is ulcerative colitis?

A chronic disease, ulcerative colitis is caused by the immune system overreacting. It affects the large intestine, or colon, and is characterized by inflammation which results in sores, or ulcers, on the lining. The ulcers create pus and mucous which trigger pain and the need to relieve oneself. There are three types of the condition, affecting different areas of the large intestine: ulcerative proctitis, left-sided colitis, and extensive colitis.

Symptoms can include lose bowel movements and the urgent need to use the restroom; blood in stools; abdominal cramps and pain; as well as persistent diarrhea accompanied by abdominal pain and bloody stools. Other symptoms include a loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, fever, low energy levels, anemia, and delayed growth in children.

According to the Chron's and Colitis Foundation, symptoms vary between patients, with around half of cases being mild.

Patients can go into remission, when they do not suffer symptoms, for months or years. But the symptoms will generally come back as there is no cure. Instead patients must try to manage the condition. Doctors may prescribe medication to suppress inflammation in the colon and control symptoms and delay flare-ups.

As foods can aggravate the condition, patients can be advised to avoid certain foods, such as those that are spice or contain high levels of fiber.

Between a quarter and one third of patients with the condition may not respond to drugs and will be advised to have surgery to remove the colon, according to the Chron's and Colitis Foundation.

Doctors diagnose the condition based off a number of factors, including the results of physical examinations and blood and fecal tests.

Dan McLean, marketing and communications director at the charity Crohn's and Colitis U.K. told Newsweek: "Everyone is different, and people's experiences with ulcerative colitis vary so widely. People can have different symptoms and someone's symptoms can even change over time—depending on whether the condition is active or in remission."

McLean said the condition can affect almost every part of the body "from digestion and joints to energy levels and mental health."

He said: "Although it is devastating when the condition prevents you from doing things, it is important to remember that it is OK to rest and take the time you need to get the condition into remission."

This article has been updated with information regarding Abe's condition, and comment from Dan McLean.

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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the media upon his arrival at the prime minister's office on August 24, 2020. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Image