Flint, Mich., Residents Hit With Bacterial Illness as Water Crisis Continues

After a year of dealing with lead-contaminated water, residents of Flint now face a gastrointestinal illness that spreads when people don’t wash their hands.

A resident of Flint, Mich., runs water from her faucet.
A resident of Flint, Mich., runs water from her faucet. Al-Jazeera America screenshot

Residents of Flint, Mich., have spent the last year finding creative ways to avoid using the city’s contaminated water supplies in their daily lives, but now a new threat adds an additional complication to an already frustrating situation: an outbreak of shigellosis.

The New York Times reports that cases of the bacterial illness, which is easily transmitted when people don’t wash their hands, have increased in Genesee County, where Flint is the largest city.

The illness can lead to severe diarrhea, fever, nausea, vomiting, cramps, and stool containing blood or mucus. Genesee County has had 85 reported cases of the illness since the beginning of the year, the highest number in the state.

The Genesee County Health Department released a statement (pdf) noting the increase in shigella, the bacteria that causes the illness, and said that it is spread through a fecal-oral route. This means that the bacteria leaves one person’s body through the stool and is spread to others through contaminated hands, surfaces, food or water.

Residents of Flint have been relying on bottled water for drinking, but personal hygiene habits have changed in light of the water-contamination crisis. Many residents rely on baby wipes, which they are able to get for free at bottled-water distribution centers, as a substitute for washing their hands, but as the New York Times reports, this may be contributing to the spread of bacteria.

In a report published in August, the Michigan Health Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other agencies noted that a large percentage of Flint residents had changed their method or frequency of bathing since the crisis began. Four percent of those surveyed said that they simply used baby wipes.

Matt Karwowski, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC, told the Times that this could be having an impact on the spread of the bacteria.

“There is definitely some question about whether changes in handwashing and hygiene practices may be playing a role,” Karwowski said. “People in Flint have been concerned about the safety of their water supply, and that may be playing a role in their hygiene practices.”

The CDC recommends washing hands with warm, soapy water to avoid spreading bacteria.

Read more at the New York Times.