Along with the highly publicized lead contamination of its water supply, Flint, MI, also bears the dubious distinction of having the highest number of Shigella cases in the state.
The Genesee County Health Department has reported 85 cases so far this year, with more than half of them within the Flint city limits. Twenty-seven people have been hospitalized. A higher-than-normal number of shigellosis cases is also being reported in Saginaw County, which borders Flint.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services noted that the 85 Genesee County cases compares with 20 shigellosis cases reported there in 2015 and four cases in 2014.
Shigellosis is a highly contagious disease caused by four different strains of Shigella bacteria. Even a microscopic amount of contaminated fecal matter in food or water can cause infection if consumed.
Most people infected with the bacteria develop diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps within a day or two after being exposed. The symptoms usually resolve within five to seven days.
Some people who are infected may have no symptoms at all, but may still pass the Shigella bacteria to others. The spread of Shigella can be stopped by frequent and careful hand-washing with soap and by taking other hygiene measures.
Flint’s water contamination problems began in April 2014 when the city switched its source from treated Lake Huron and Detroit River water to the Flint River. Because officials did not add corrosion inhibitors to the highly corrosive river water, it caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the city’s water supply.
Between June 2014 and November 2015, there were 87 cases of infection with Legionella bacteria reported in Genesee County. Ten of those people died. However, no direct link was made between the spike in Legionnaires’ disease and the change in the water system.
Some public health officials are speculating that the current shigellosis problem stems from Flint residents being afraid to use the tainted city water to wash their hands, even though hand-washing is a recommended method for limiting foodborne and other illnesses.
According to Jim Henry, environmental health supervisor for Genesee County, “People aren’t bathing because they’re scared. Some people have mentioned that they’re not going to expose their children to the water again.”
In an interview with CNN, Henry advised county residents not to rely on baby wipes, handed out for free at bottled water distribution centers, because they aren’t chlorinated, don’t kill the bacteria, and can’t replace thorough hand-washing.
However, others find no connection between the water problems and the uptick in shigellosis cases.
“We don’t know the exact reason,” said Dr. Gary Johnson, medical director at the Genesee County Health Department, in a Facebook post. “There isn’t a particular reason why.”
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