Contagious outbreak strikes Flint, Genesee

The Detroit News

Following a lead contamination crisis that has thrust Flint into the national spotlight, health officials now say the city has had more than half of the cases in a countywide outbreak of a highly contagious gastrointestinal illness.

State statistics show Genesee County, which includes the beleaguered city, has Michigan’s highest level of shigellosis. Genesee had 84 cases through September, while neighboring Saginaw County notched the second-largest county figure in Michigan: 47, according to the state records.

“We do know that more than one half of the Genesee County shigellosis cases have been in Flint,” said Jennifer Eisner, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

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. In 2013, the average annual incidence of shigellosis was 4.82 cases per 100,000 people, the center reported.

Last month, Genesee logged five cases, compared to a peak of 28 in June, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported.

Flint representatives and Genesee County health officials did not respond to requests for comment about the outbreak.

The state health department has been in contact with Genesee County health officials since May about the outbreak, Eisner said.

“The most important aspect of controlling a shigellosis outbreak is through proper hygiene, including hand washing, food handling, and personal care activities such as diapering,” she told The Detroit News on Monday.

Flint representatives and Genesee County health officials did not respond to requests for comment about the outbreak.

State officials have provided information to the Genesee County Health Department to distribute to families, schools, daycare facilities as well as health care providers, Eisner added. Her department has also been working with the county on developing a hand-washing campaign.

An advisory the Genesee health department issued last month acknowledged the increase in shigella. The bacteria can leave an infected person’s body in stool then is spread by contaminated hands, surfaces, food, or water, state health officials said.

“Shigellosis is highly contagious; a small amount of bacteria can cause a person to become ill,” said a notice on the state website.

Symptoms — which include diarrhea, sometimes bloody; fever; and abdominal pain — typically start one to two days after exposure and can last up to a week, according to the CDC.

Though people from all age groups can be affected, young children are the most likely to get shigellosis, CDC officials found.

Prevention includes avoiding swallowing water from ponds, lakes or untreated swimming pools; hand washing for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water, including cleaning under the fingernails. Those infected are also advised to remain isolated for least 48 hours.

For more information, go to or call the Genesee County Health Department at (810) 257-1017.

Shigellosis was among three illnesses — including cryptosporidiosis and salmonellosis — the county this year said had been increasing.

In August, a key national expert leading monitoring efforts of the Flint water crisis referred to a “spike in gastrointestinal upset” in the population that coincided with many residents opting not to bathe or shower following a nonprofit’s claims about the water.

However, Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards said findings indicated the city could be nearing “the beginning of the end of the public health disaster.” Testing showed a continued drop in the overall average of lead found in Flint homes — from 28.7 parts per billion in August 2015 to 13.9 parts per billion in July 2016. The federal action level for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion.

The city used Flint River water between April 2014 and October 2015, when it returned to Detroit’s Lake Huron supply. It’s believed the harsh river water leached lead from the city’s aging pipes into the municipal system.

Officials noted a spike in Legionnaire’s disease cases in that time, which resulted in 12 deaths.