New Mexico health officials reported Wednesday they are investigating a recent increase in cases of Shigella sonnei in Lea, Chaves, and Eddy counties. Shigellosis is a bacterial disease that causes diarrhea, fever, nausea, and sometimes vomiting, cramps, and toxemia.

Counties of New Mexico
New Mexico map/US Government

Since May 2016, 140 confirmed and probable cases have been identified in the three southeastern counties. Most cases since the beginning of the outbreak have been among preschool and school-aged children. However, recent data indicate that the infection has begun to affect the wider community. New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) encourages individuals with symptoms to get tested if they are experiencing signs and symptoms of Shigella infection.

Oftentimes, diarrhea will contain blood and mucus. The time between exposure to Shigella and symptom onset varies from one to several days, but is typically between one and three days. Possible complications from Shigella infections include post-infectious arthritis, blood stream infections (although rare), seizures, and hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening disease than can cause kidney damage.

Shigella is extremely contagious. An infected person can shed the bacteria in their stool when they have diarrhea and up to a month after the diarrhea has gone away. Shigella can be spread in the following ways:

  • Infected persons can spread Shigella by not washing their hands after going to the bathroom and then handling food that other people will eat.
  • Caretakers can become infected by changing the diaper of an infected child or caring for an infected person. The caretaker’s hands may get some small amount of stool and bacteria on their hands, and without proper hand hygiene, spread the bacteria to everything they touch afterwards (including their mouths).
  • Swallowing recreational water (for example a splash pad, pool, and/or lake) that was contaminated by infected fecal matter.
  • Exposure to feces through sexual contact.

“If your child is sick, we advise you to not take your child to daycare or school. This will only spread this illness to other children and their families,” advises Lynn Gallagher, Secretary of Health.  “If you think that your child may have Shigella, please take your child to their healthcare provider to be tested.”

You can decrease your chance of coming into contact with Shigella by doing the following:

  • Washing your hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, or before preparing and/or eating food.
  • Promptly cleaning possible contaminated surfaces with household chlorine bleach-based cleaners.
  • Washing soiled clothing and linens.
  • Avoiding food or water from sources that may be contaminated.
  • Not sending sick children to school, daycare, or local pool and splash pads if they have persistent diarrhea.