With 177 shigellosis cases reported between March 1 and Oct. 26 from Michigan’s Genesee and Saginaw counties and no source yet identified, state and county health officials have called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for help.

Shigella bacteria
A 3-D computer-generated image of Shigella bacteria. (Courtesy of CDC)

CDC investigators are now on the scene in Flint, MI, to help track what caused the outbreak of this highly contagious gastrointestinal disease and see what can be done to prevent further illnesses.

They are busy reviewing the known cases and checking into potential connections with those being reported from other parts of Michigan, according to a community update posted Oct. 26 from CDC, state and county health officials.

“We’re contacting people who were ill in Genesee and Saginaw County to figure out how this was spread. There are so many possible cases we’re not speculating,” said Genesee County Health Division Director Suzanne Cupal.

The number of shigellosis cases in the area is much higher this year than in previous years, she said, peaking in early July and slowing down since September. At least 27 of those sickened have been hospitalized, but no related deaths have so far been reported.

There has been speculation that the shigellosis outbreak could be linked to the much-publicized water problems in Flint. That’s because some residents are afraid to use the tainted city water to wash their hands and therefore could be allowing foodborne and waterborne pathogens to gain a foothold.

Cupal and her public health colleagues are advocating thorough and frequent handwashing to help prevent further spread of the disease.

“Some germs like Shigella only take a small amount to make you ill,” she said. “This is an opportunity to remind everyone that hand-washing should be a healthy habit you practice every day. It’s critical after you’ve diapered, used the bathroom and before you cook food.”

If hand sanitizer is used instead, it should contain at least 60-percent alcohol, Cupal advised.

Washing_hands_406x250“We want everyone to make handwashing a healthy habit that everybody does regularly,” she said. “Use soap, and rub hands together for at least 20 seconds. The friction with the foam is what’s getting the bacteria off your hands.”

Shigellosis is a highly contagious disease caused by four different strains of Shigella bacteria. Even a microscopic amount of contaminated fecal matter in food, water or other beverages 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 handwashing with soap and by taking other hygiene measures.

If you or someone in your family has symptoms of Shigella infection such as diarrhea, a stomach ache and occasional fever, the Genesee County Health Department recommends visiting a healthcare provider and asking about a test for Shigella.

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