Just two years after residents in Flint, Michigan were exposed to unsafe levels of lead contamination in their drinking water and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, local officials report an outbreak of a highly-contagious gastrointestinal illness, shigellosis.
The illness is caused by a bacteria and spread person-to-person, sparking an estimated 500,000 cases nationwide annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Still afraid and mistrustful of the water, residents in Flint, who are still forced to use either filtered or bottled water because of damaged water pipes, are bathing less, and refusing to wash their hands relying instead on baby wipes which they can get for free at bottled water distribution centers.
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Genessee County, home of Flint, is leading the state in reported cases of shigellosis, with 84 through September, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. At least 53 of those cases have occurred within Flint city limits, Jim Henry, Genesee County’s environmental health supervisor, told CNN. At least 27 of the Flint cases resulted in hospitalization.
Meanwhile, neighboring Saginaw County has the second-highest cases of shigellosis in the state, with 47, according to state health records.
Shigella bacteria causes about 500,000 cases of diarrheal disease in the US each year. Shigellosis is marked by abdominal pain and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration. Symptoms usually take five to seven days to pass without antibiotic treatment, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The bacteria can be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces or ingesting contaminated food and water.
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The latest outbreak is likely due in no small part to area residents’ distrust of Flint’s water supply, which in 2014 and 2015 was subject to lead contamination long ignored or inadequately addressed by local and state officials to the detriment of residents’ health. The contamination crisis is also believed to be related to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the city in 2014 that led to 12 deaths.
Henry said local skepticism of the Flint water supply has led many to alter bathing, handwashing, and other hygiene habits, likely contributing to the spread of the shigella bacteria. For example, some residents have come to depend on baby wipes.
“But baby wipes are not effective, they’re not chlorinated, it doesn’t kill the bacteria and it doesn’t replace handwashing,” Henry told CNN. “People have changed their behavior regarding personal hygiene. They’re scared.”
Cases of shigellosis in Genesee County peaked in June, with 28 cases, the Detroit News reported citing state health records. The county health department has since issued an advisory warning residents of shigellosis.
Henry claimed the state has, at times, been less than responsive to calls for assistance, CNN reported. He said when he told the state department of health of the spike in shigellosis cases in August, the department told him to “contact the CDC.”
“During the time that MDHHS [Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] refused to communicate with us regarding Shigellosis, we had several more cases, which MDHHS knew about because they are reported” in state records, he said.
He said the state offered more assistance in September.
“However, for weeks the state MDHHS stopped communicating and assisting [the county] regarding all disease investigations, including Shigellosis,” Henry said. “This action directly compromised the safety and health of our communities.”
An MDHHS spokeswoman told CNN the department began assisting Genessee County with its shigellosis outbreak in May. Then for a two-week period in August, it had limited contact with the county based on a protective order mandated by a court related to the department’s role in the Flint water contamination investigation.
“It is entirely irresponsible … to attempt to portray MDHHS’s efforts regarding the Genesee County shigellosis situation as somehow lacking. MDHHS has been fully engaged in this effort,” the department said in a statement.
Henry has also alleged that inaction by the state, despite warnings and calls for assistance, exacerbated Flint’s Legionnaires’ outbreak in 2014. He told CNN in February that the state had gone as far as warding off CDC investigators.
“The state stopped our investigation by prohibiting us to communicate,” Henry said at the time. “They prohibited communication between the Centers for Disease Control and Genesee County Health Department. They prevented that team to come here and help us find the source.”
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