As children grow, the skills they learn in early childhood can be the skills that can save their lives; learning how to look both ways to cross the road, to be safe and courteous when playing, and to protect their health for their lifetime through the skill of proper hand washing. All children should be taught from the earliest age to wash their hands meticulously to prevent a multitude of illnesses.

In our area, we have had an outbreak of a highly contagious disease since September 2015 that can cause serious illness to everyone who comes in contact with it; Shigella bacteria. Shigellosis is the disease that Shigella bacteria spread from person-to-person through the fecal-oral route. The bacteria can be transferred easily among children because of poor hand washing habits and a tendency to put things in their mouths. Because Shigella is resistant to gastric acid, an adult can get infected with as little as 10 organisms, children as little as 3 organisms.

Symptoms usually begin 24 to 72 hours after exposure and last about four to seven days without treatment; however, severe infections may require antibiotics.

The CDC offers the following recommendations for preventing the spread of Shigella:

  • Wash hands with soap carefully and frequently, especially after going to the bathroom, after changing diapers, and before preparing foods or beverages.
  • Dispose of soiled diapers properly; disinfect diaper changing areas after using them; keep children with diarrhea out of child care settings.
  • Supervise hand washing of toddlers and small children after they use the toilet; do not prepare food for others while ill with diarrhea and avoid swallowing water from ponds, lakes, or untreated pools.

Shigella germs are present in the stools of infected persons while they have diarrhea and for up to a week or two after the diarrhea has gone away. Shigella is very contagious; exposure to even a tiny amount of contaminated fecal matter—too small to see– can cause infection. Transmission of Shigella occurs when people put something in their mouths or swallow something that has come into contact with stool of a person infected with Shigella. This can happen when:

  • Contaminated hands touch your food or mouth. Hands can become contaminated through a variety of activities, such as touching surfaces (e.g., toys, bathroom fixtures, changing tables, diaper pails) that have been contaminated by stool from an infected person. Hands can also become contaminated with Shigella while changing the diaper of an infected child or caring for an infected person. Information on Safe & Healthy Diapering in the Home and Diaper-Changing Steps for Childcare Settings are available here.
  • Eating food contaminated with Shigella. Food may become contaminated if food handlers have shigellosis. Produce can become contaminated if growing fields contain human sewage. Flies can breed in infected feces and then contaminate food when they land on it.
  • Swallowing recreational (for example lake or river water while swimming) or drinking water that was contaminated by infected fecal matter.

Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent shigellosis. However, you can reduce your risk of getting shigellosis by carefully washing your hands with soap during key times. If you care for a child in diapers who has shigellosis, promptly discard the soiled diapers in a lidded, lined garbage can, and wash your hands and the child’s hands carefully with soap and water immediately after changing the diapers. Moreover, any leaks or spills of diaper contents should be cleaned up immediately.

If your child does become infected, keep them out of childcare and group play settings while ill with diarrhea, and follow the guidance of your local health department about returning your child to his or her childcare facility. Additionally, avoid taking your child swimming or to group water play venues until after he or she has fully recovered.

More FAQs can be found on the Center for Disease Control Website here.