CDC warns of drug-resistant, contagious intestinal illness — what Canadians need to know

A highly contagious intestinal illness is on the rise in the US. What Canadians need to know about the drug-resistant Shigella bacteria.

woman wearing white t-shirt and blue pants holding stomach, stomach pains and cramps, intestinal illness, Shigella, shigellosis
A drug-resistant, highly infectious strain of Shigella is on the rise — what Canadians need to know about the intestinal illness (Getty).

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

U.S. health officials are warning residents about a rise in infections of an antibiotic-resistant and highly infectious intestinal illness.

Shigellosis, an infection caused by the Shigella bacteria, is an acute infectious disease that attacks the intestines, causing inflammatory diarrhea and stomach pain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a health advisory on Friday warning of an increase in Shigella infections. Since 2015, officials have noted a rise in cases linked to a drug-resistant strain of the disease called XDR.

The CDC estimates about 450,000 cases of shigellosis occur in the United States every year. In Canada, approximately 880 cases of shigellosis are reported annually. Recently, Edmonton's inner city population battled an outbreak of the disease, with AHS confirming 206 Shigella diagnoses.

What is Shigellosis (Shigella)?

Shigellosis is an acute infection of the intestines caused by bacteria called Shigella. Shigellosis has a wide range of symptoms, including fever, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pains, stomach cramps and diarrhea (watery and often bloody).

According to Health Canada, most symptoms end within 5 to 7 days. However, it may take several weeks to months before bowel habits return to normal. Additionally, some may experience long-term symptoms, such as Reiter's syndrome. These symptoms usually appear 3 to 4 weeks after you start feeling sick.

close up of Shigellosis (Shigella) bacteria
Exposure to the Shigella bacteria is commonly through contaminated food, water or hands (Getty).

What causes Shigellosis (Shigella)?

Shigella bacteria is found in the intestines of humans. Shigellosis, the illness, is highly infectious and can be transmitted in several ways, including ingesting contaminated foods and liquids, touching contaminated surfaces and swimming in contaminated recreational waters. Person-to-person contact with an infected individual, including sexual contact, is another transmission route.

Risks of getting shigellosis

You could be exposed to Shigella if you come in contact with infected feces, don't practice proper handwashing, or if those around you have poor hygiene habits.

Health Canada recommends thoroughly washing your hands after using the washroom and handling raw foods, washing fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them and cleaning work surfaces before and after preparing foods.

Historically, shigellosis has affected young children (ages 1-4) in the United States. More recently, the CDC has noted an increase in antimicrobial-resistant strains in adult populations, especially among people experiencing homelessness, people living with HIV, international travellers and men who have sex with other men.

Antimicrobial-resistant Shigella infections

An estimated 242,000 antimicrobial-resistant Shigella infections occur in the United States each year, according to the CDC.

Antimicrobial resistance arises when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites change over time and no longer respond to traditional medicines. When bacteria are resistant to medications, they are harder to treat and potentially become more transmissible.

close up of white woman's hands washing with soap and bubbles on beige background
Health Canada recommends washing your hands often and thoroughly to avoid a Shigella infection (Getty).

How to prevent shigellosis

Contaminated foods and beverages look, smell and taste normal, so it can be difficult to prevent Shigella-related illness. To lessen your risk of being infected with shigellosis, Health Canada recommends adopting the following:

  • Following food safety practices

  • Washing your hands often and thoroughly

  • Washing raw fruits and vegetables before ingesting

  • Drink water from a safe source

  • Avoid sexual activity with those who have diarrhea or who recently recovered from diarrhea

  • If you have shigellosis or another contagious illness causing diarrhea, do not prepare food or pour water for other people

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