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Pinellas tracks outbreak of shigella, a bacterial disease

Since mid-January, Pinellas has seen three times the number of cases reported in the same period of last year.

By WES ALLISON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's nasty, insidious, and kids pass it around like Pokemon cards.

Pinellas County health officials are trying to track down recent, sporadic outbreaks of shigella, a highly contagious bacterial infection that has spread through fecal matter, usually by people who don't wash their hands well after using the bathroom. It tends to strike at day care centers, schools or restaurants.

Pinellas County has had 31 reported cases since mid-January, more than triple the number reported during the same period last year. Most are children in day care and their families, but they've been scattered around the county. Epidemiologists have been calling the parents of sick kids to ask where they've been, in hopes of learning where they may have been infected.

"We're trying to find out if there is some common source, but so far we haven't identified anything," said Diana Jordan, epidemiologist for the county health department. "And the onset dates are separated (by two months). If we had 30 cases in a couple weeks, we would have tracked down some common source."

Hillsborough has had 27 cases since the beginning of the year, which is about normal, and other surrounding counties report localized outbreaks as well, the state health department says.

Shigella often brings bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps and a fever, but it's not especially dangerous and usually runs its course in a couple days. It is what public health officials call a background disease -- it's always around in small numbers, but when it spikes, epidemiologists try to find the source of the outbreak and stop it.

That means inspecting day care centers and offering stool tests where the disease is reported, and impressing upon parents and teachers the importance of making children wash their hands after using the bathroom.

Those who work with small children also should thoroughly wash after changing diapers, and anyone with diarrhea should avoid preparing food, Jordan said. Children with diarrhea -- especially bloody diarrhea -- should see a doctor.

Shigella is so contagious because, unlike most illnesses, only a few germs can make you sick. Even after you feel well, you can continue to carry the bacteria for a month or two, and it can be as insidious as kudzu.

Just ask Susan and David Kern of St. Petersburg. Their four young children are under health department orders to stay home until everyone finishes a course of antibiotics and tests negative -- twice -- for the bacteria.

That means the children, who range from 4 to 11, can return to school and day care in one week at the earliest. "I'm going out of my mind," Susan Kern said Wednesday.

Kern said she learned some of her children had shigella only Monday, after the whole family was tested during the weekend, but she thinks it first found her clan in mid-February, when her 11-year-old daughter came down with severe diarrhea and stomach cramps. Kern's 8-year-old son has not been infected.

But her two 4-year-olds got sick in early March, then an 8-year-old nephew who was visiting from Pennsylvania.

In fact, the nephew got so sick that, upon returning home last week, his mother took him to an emergency room, Mrs. Kern said. He was diagnosed with shigella, and health officials there called the Kerns and told them to get tested. Two of the four Kern children tested positive.

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