As if the city’s lead contamination crisis wasn’t bad enough, residents of Flint, Michigan now face a new public health crisis in the form of a contagious bacterial disease called Shigellosis.
Residents of the suburban city have been grappling with the effects of the water crisis for the past two years, relying on bottled water and faucet filters to drink and bathe. Now this.
In April 2014, lead began leaching into Flint’s water supply when city officials started drawing water from the filthy Flint River in an effort to save money. Residents suffered unsightly rashes, hair loss and even a spike in Legionnaires’ cases in 2015.
Widespread mistrust of the city’s water supply — especially by people still forced to use either bottled water or a water filter — has resulted in residents bathing less and refusing to wash their hands. Ironically, this is exactly how Shigellosis is spread.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease is caused by the Shigella bacteria and spreads easily from person-to-person, resulting in an estimated 500,000 cases nationwide each year. The illness, which can cause bloody diarrhea and fever, typically resolves in five to seven days without treatment, but it is still highly contagious and may lead to dehydration.
“People aren’t bathing because they’re scared,” said Jim Henry, environmental health supervisor of Genesee County. “Some people have mentioned that they’re not going to expose their children to the water again.”
Instead, Henry said residents are relying on baby wipes, which they receive free of charge at bottled water distribution stations.
“But baby wipes are not effective, they’re not chlorinated, it doesn’t kill the bacteria and it doesn’t replace hand washing,” he said. “People have changed their behavior regarding personal hygiene. They’re scared.”
The Detroit News reports that Genesee County, which includes the besieged city of Flint, has Michigan’s highest level of Shigellosis. According to state records, Genesee County had 84 cases of the infectious disease through September, while neighboring Saginaw County had the second-largest amount of cases — 47 to be exact.
“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,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner told the Detroit News Monday.
Eisner said state health officials are working to provide information about the disease to the Genesee County Health Department for distribution to health care providers, schools, families and child care facilities. The MDHHS and Genessee County are also planning to develop a campaign that will encourage Flint residents to wash their hands.
Per CDC officials, Shigellosis affects people of all age groups, but children are most likely to contract the disease. That’s why the Genessee County Health Department is encouraging residents, especially children, to wash their hands with HOT water after using the bathroom and before touching food. CNN.com reported that Flint residents have been reluctant to run hot water through their filters for fear that it would decrease the life of them.
“The spread of Shigella bacteria can be stopped by practicing good hand hygiene,” a statement from the county health department reads. “Proper hand washing takes at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water, including cleaning under the fingernails. As always, children and adults who are ill should stay home until all of their symptoms are gone and stools are normal for at least 48 hours.”
Three Michigan state officials have since been charged for their negligence in the Flint water crisis.