Shigella outbreak in Edmonton’s inner city put 115 people in hospital

Click to play video: 'Shigella outbreak spreading through Edmonton’s homeless population'
Shigella outbreak spreading through Edmonton’s homeless population
WATCH (Oct. 19): Alberta Health Services is an investigating the outbreak of an infectious disease most often associated with third-world countries among Edmonton's inner city and homeless population. As Nicole Stillger reports, patients are landing in hospital with shigella – Oct 19, 2022

Since the first case of Shigella was diagnosed on Aug. 29, Alberta Health Services says 173 people have contracted the disease, 115 of whom have required hospitalization.

In October, AHS reached out to the City of Edmonton and launched a task force to plan a coordinated outbreak response.

The outbreak is primarily affecting members of Edmonton’s inner city population, AHS said in a news release Thursday. No deaths connected to this outbreak have been reported.

“We recognize that the case numbers in this outbreak are concerning and we are doing everything we can to care for this vulnerable population, including coordinating additional resources and supports in the downtown area,” said Dr. Michael Zakhary, AHS Edmonton Zone medical officer of health.

“Thankfully, we are starting to see a bend in the curve of case numbers.”

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Shigella is a disease that’s commonly associated with diarrhea, as well as fever, nausea and stomach cramps. It can cause severe illness, resulting in hospitalization, and it spreads when someone comes into contact with fecal matter from an infected person and also by eating food contaminated with the bacteria.

AHS and the City of Edmonton have been working with inner city shelters, agencies and partners and the province on an outbreak response. The task force meets weekly.

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Throughout September, AHS teams connected with shelters, agencies and local family physicians about “the growing cluster of cases.” AHS’ Environmental Public Health team made regular visits to shelters to provide advice and guidance. In early October, AHS reached out to the city for support. In mid-October, AHS struck a task force to coordinate resources and a response.

The task force has distributed outbreak information handouts as well as 500 personal care kits. The city has expanded the operation of temporary mobile washrooms (some with showers and laundry facilities), extended hours and expanded access to existing hygiene sites at shelters downtown, conducted outreach care and testing across several encampments and distributed donations of clean clothes.

“The number of Edmontonians experiencing homelessness doubled during the pandemic,” said Christel Kjenner, the city’s director of Affordable Housing and Homelessness. “Existing agencies are struggling to keep up with the demand for services for unsheltered community members. We are working closely with AHS and our community partners to limit the spread of this illness.”

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LISTEN: Dr. Louis Francescutti speaks with Shaye Ganam, Oct. 20, 2022.

In mid-October, when 87 cases had been identified, a prominent local doctor called for more to be done to get homeless people into stable housing.

“Shigella is an infectious disease that we see in third-world countries or after earthquakes, disasters or floods,” said Dr. Louis Francescutti, a University of Alberta public health professor and emergency physician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and Northeast Community Health Centre.

“We’ve got third-world medical conditions in the middle of Edmonton in 2022. Totally unacceptable.”

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