ALBANY — An infection that closed down an area school system Monday and Tuesday is continuing to have an impact throughout the region.
Evidence of shigella, a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea (often bloody), fever and stomach cramps, has been seen in multiple counties, prompting the Southwest Public Health District to urge people to take precautions to help stop the disease from spreading.
The disease was initially spotted several weeks ago in Worth and Dougherty counties. Now, symptomatic patients are being identified in Early, Seminole, Decatur, Lee and Thomas counties. So far, Worth County has seen the biggest impact.
The most recent update on the case count reflected four confirmed cases with scores of others showing symptoms. The health district depends on doctors and hospitals to report cases as lab results come back, which means there is not always an immediate change in the numbers even though it has been established that rates are higher.
Shigella is spread by fecal and oral transmission through infected people sharing food or beverages, or touching surfaces that are then touched by others. The spread of shigella from an infected person to others can be stopped by frequent and careful handwashing with soap and warm water, officials say.
“Wash for at least 20 seconds, which is approximately how long it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday’ song twice, and make sure to clean around and under the nails,” recommended Health District Director Dr. Jacqueline Grant. “Towel-drying is recommended when possible.”
The health district is reaching out to the affected areas by doing things such as distributing handwashing videos to the schools in Worth County, and posting similar information on the county’s Chamber of Commerce website.
Letters were expected to be distributed to parents of children in the Dougherty County School System Friday, said Kitty Bishop, director of nursing and clinical services at the health district.
“Not everyone is going to be tested for the disease, so all we can do is focus on good handwashing,” she said. “It is being spread because people are not taking preventive measures.
“It’s one of those things that is so easily spread.”
Experts say that while cleaning surfaces, especially with cleansers containing bleach, is also important, the best way to prevent spreading the infection is by good hand hygiene.
The first clusters of shigella were identified in September among Worth County children However, infections are now either confirmed or suspected in older children and adults.
There is no vaccine to prevent shigella. Some people who are infected may not have symptoms, but may pass the bacteria on to others. People with shigella are advised not prepare food or drinks for others until they have been shown to no longer be carrying the shigella bacterium, or until they have had no diarrhea for at least seven days.
Sick children should not return to school until they’ve produced fully-formed stools for 48 hours and are free of symptoms.
The infection usually clears up on its own in five to seven days. The public health recommendations regarding shigella are:
Not using Lomotil (Diphenoxylate and Atropine), Imodium (loperamide) or similar over-the-counter medications for diarrhea, which will worsen the illness and prolong bacterial shedding;
Consulting a health care provider if symptoms present;
Schools and child care providers contacting their respective county health departments if they see two or more children with symptoms of shigella.