A Shigella outbreak in Flint, Michigan in Genesee County is compounding the trouble in that city that began when an administrator appointed by Governor Rick Snyder switched the city’s water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River to save money. Government officials did not treat the water with anti-corrosive compounds. Residents began complaining almost immediately about foul-smelling, discolored water.
The water was so corrosive it leached lead from old pipes in the city’s water system and homes. Many of the city’s children have now suffered lead poisoning, with possibly permanent health consequences. A Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak, which sickened 87 people and killed 10 people, may have also been connected to the water switch, although no definitive link has been proven.
Now, perhaps because residents are understandably leery of the water supply, a Shigella outbreak has occurred. Shigella is a bacteria that is spread through the fecal-oral route. Improper handwashing contributes to the spread of this illness. On September 12, 2016, Genesee County Health Department issued a release about this increase in Shigella infections.
Many Flint residents are relying on wet wipes and antibacterial gels to clean themselves because of the problems with the water supply. Those methods are not as effective against Shigella bacteria as handwashing with soap and water. In fact, unchlorinated wipes are completely ineffective against Shigella.
Environmental health supervisor for Genesee County Jim Henry said, “People aren’t bathing because they’re scared. Some people have mentioned that they’re not going to exposure their children to the water again.” The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has issued a Health Alert Network notification to reinforce the public health messaging with the healthcare community.
At least 85 Shigella cases have occurred in Genesee County; half of those have occurred in Flint. Twenty-seven people have been hospitalized in this outbreak. That is up from 20 shigellosis cases in 2015 and four cases in 2014. Saginaw County, which is next to Flint, has seen an increase in Shigella cases as well.
A news release posted yesterday on Genesee County Health Department’s Facebook page about this outbreak states that “in Flint, unfiltered water is safe for handwashing and bathing. When using filtered water for any purpose, it’s important to ensure the filter is properly installed, filter cartridges are replaced as indicated, and they are properly maintained according to the manufacturer’s guidelines.”
Shigellosis is a type of dysentery, which causes painful abdominal cramps, fever, nausea, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. The bacteria is very contagious. The very young, people with weakened immune systems, and the elderly are most likely to suffer serious complications from this infection. Shigellosis can lead to serious complications such as hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can destroy the kidneys. Shigella is usually spread through contaminated food and water.
If anyone is experiencing the symptoms of Shigella, they should see a doctor. Stay home until all of your symptoms are gone and stools are normal for at least 48 hours. Wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds to get rid of bacteria on your hands after using the bathroom, after caring for someone who is sick, before preparing or serving food for others, and after changing diapers. Don’t handle food for others until you are completely well.