By Nate Strauch
Grayson County Health Director John Teel gave a group of about 100 Austin College students a first-hand look Thursday inside the county’s fight against an epidemic of dysentery caused by the shigella bacteria. Local health officials have been struggling against the illness since last October.
“When I asked the public if they’d ever heard of shigella, until recently they would all say ‘No,’” said Teel. “But if I say, ‘Have you heard of salmonella, have you heard of E. coli,’ every hand in the room goes up. They’re extremely similar microorganisms (to shigella).”
Teel said the County believes it finally has gained the upper hand against the spread of the highly-contagious disease, with only one new case confirmed in recent days. He showed students a bar graph that indicated a downward trend, but cautioned it would take only one sick food worker to reignite the epidemic. He told the group that local officials now believe the epidemic came to Grayson County by way of the Sunshine State.
“We’re asking our peers at the State Health Department to figure out who started this,” said Teel. “Right now, we think our Sory Elementary case had visited relatives in Broward County, Florida, one incubation period before the child went back to Sory Elementary.”
The presentation was focused chiefly on the scientific side of the disease, as Teel’s crowd was mostly biology students with a heavy emphasis on pre-med. The lecture hall frequently broke into nervous laughter as Teel covered, in vivid detail, the largely scatological nature of the symptoms.
While Teel explained that shigella cases appear to be finally flagging, he said a recent outbreak of norovirus in the County has led to a number of false alarms. While the initial onset of symptoms is very similar to those of shigella, norovirus symptoms typically clear up within 48 hours, while the dysentery associated with shigella can last three times as long.
“It messed us up for two or three weeks, wondering, ‘Why did our shigella get weird and not make people sick for seven days?’ … Well it’s because it wasn’t shigella,” explained Teel. “In early January we began seeing this (norovirus).”
As Grayson County authorities look to put shigella in the rear-view mirror, Tell said health officials farther south won’t be as lucky moving forward.
“Our outbreak has bled over into Collin County, and I apologized to them in advance. I said, ‘It’s coming,’” explained Teel. “There have been 20 or 30 cases in Collin County, about 12 in Denton. The State (Health Department) thinks it will continue to spread south on (U.S. Highway) 75.”