The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department (KCHD) is investigating a recent increase of gastrointestinal illnesses in the community. Many of the cases include school-aged children who attended several local schools. We are continuing to see some localized probable cases but the overall numbers are declining.

Shigella gastroenteritis is a contagious disease that affects the intestinal tract of humans causing diarrhea and other related symptoms such as high fever, abdominal cramps, and vomiting. Diarrhea may occur up to 8 to 10 times per day and may be mucus-like, bloody, or watery. Although this illness can infect people of all ages, it is seen primarily among children.

The illness usually starts within a few days after exposure to the bacteria as the incubation period ranges from one to seven days, with an average of three days. Once a person is infected with the illness, it can easily be spread from person to person by direct or indirect contact with fecal material.

“Symptoms of the illness usually resolve within a week”, states Dr. Rahul Gupta, Health Officer, “but our concern is that the bacteria can shed in the stool from days to several weeks after a person gets well.” Appropriate antibiotic treatment of Shigella gastroenteritis reduces the duration of fever, diarrhea, and fecal shedding. This decreased shedding may help in reducing the risk of person-to-person spread of the infection in our community. In early September, KCHD issued a Health Advisory to area hospitals and local clinicians to make them aware of the outbreak.

“KCHD is currently working with Kanawha County school nurses to monitor the situation”, stated Gupta. Information has been sent home to parents of children in the areas where we have seen the most cases.

Our goal is to make parents and others in the community aware of the illness so they can take prevention measures. Dr. Gupta would like to remind parents that if your child has the above symptoms, keep them home from school or daycare until they are well and without symptoms for at least 24 hours and consult your physician if appropriate. This is particularly important in young children. Adults and children with mild symptoms usually recover quickly. Consult your physician if your child has diarrhea for longer than 24 hours or is unable to retain fluids. Most people who require medical treatment do so because they become dehydrated which can happen more quickly in young children. Some tips for preventing the spread of shigellosis:

• Wash hands with soap carefully and frequently, especially after going to the bathroom, after changing diapers, and before preparing foods or beverages.

• Dispose of soiled diapers properly.

• Disinfect diaper changing areas after using them.

• Keep children with diarrhea out of child care settings.

• Supervise hand washing of toddlers and small children after they use the toilet.

• Do not prepare food for others while ill with diarrhea.

• Avoid swallowing water from ponds, lakes, or untreated pools.