About Shigella and its companion Shigella Blog were updated once again after extensive revisions by experts in the field and the staff and lawyers at Marler Clark, LLP PS, the only law firm in the United States that focuses its entire practice on foodborne illness litigation.

Shigella is a family of bacteria that can cause sudden and severe diarrhea (gastroenteritis) in humans. Shigellosis – the illness caused by the ingestion of Shigella bacteria – is also known as bacillary dysentery. It can occur after ingestion of fewer than 100 bacteria, making Shigella one of the most communicable and severe forms of the bacterial-induced diarrheas.

Shigella thrives in the human intestine and is commonly spread both through food and by person-to-person contact. Most Shigella infections are passed through the fecal-oral route. This happens when basic hygiene and handwashing habits are inadequate and can happen during certain types of sexual activity. Transmission is particularly likely to occur among toddlers who are not fully toilet-trained. Family members and playmates of such children are at high risk of becoming infected.

Food may become contaminated by infected food handlers who don’t wash their hands with soap after using the bathroom. Vegetables can become contaminated if they are harvested from a field with sewage in it. Flies can breed in infected feces and then contaminate food.

Water may become contaminated with Shigella bacteria if sewage goes into it or if someone with shigellosis swims in or plays with the water (especially in splash tables, untreated wading pools, or shallow play fountains used by daycare centers). Shigella infections can then be acquired by drinking, swimming in, or playing with the contaminated water.

The number of shigellosis cases reported annually to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has varied over the past several years, from more than 17,000 during 1978–2003, to an all-time low of 14,000 in 2004, to almost 20,000 in 2007. Many cases go undiagnosed and/or unreported, however. The CDC estimates that 450,000 total cases of shigellosis occur in the U.S. every year.

Shigella is the third most common pathogen transmitted through food. During 2006, a total of 1,270 foodborne-related outbreaks from 48 states in the U.S. were reported. Although Shigella was responsible for only 10 (1%) of those outbreaks, 183 confirmed cases of shigellosis were reported. This contrasts with an average of 659 cases annually in the previous five years. Shigella has also responsible for a substantial portion of foodborne outbreaks on cruise ships.