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Health officials say the illness poses a “serious public health threat.”

As if we needed another illness to worry about, health officials are tracking a troubling surge in gastrointestinal infections that leave its victims with few treatment options.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control issued a public health advisory warning of a strain of bacteria, dubbed XDR shigella, that’s resistant to the five main antibiotics that are typically used to treat stomach bugs, including azithromycin, ciprofloxacin, ceftriaxone, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, and ampicillin.

Now the agency is asking health officials all across the country to be on guard and to report shigella cases to their state local health department. Naeemah Logan, MD, a medical officer at CDC, told The Washington Post last week that these superbug-type infections pose “a serious public health threat” that can be “challenging to treat and easily transmissible, especially among vulnerable populations” like the elderly.

But the U.S. is hardly the only country to see a startling rise in shigellosis cases. Just last year, UK officials warned of an “unusually high number of cases” linked to the XDR strain.

Wondering how you can protect yourself? We have more on everything you need to know.

What is Shigella?

Shigella is a bacteria — which happens to be genetically related to the notorious food-borne illness germ E. coli — that leads to a form of dysentery known as shigellosis. Those who are unlucky enough to catch it come down with several uncomfortable symptoms, including everything from abdominal cramping and fever to the tell-tale sign, diarrhea that can be bloody.

Though cases typically peak in the summer months and decline in the winter, Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment reported recently seeing a noticeable rise in antibiotic-resistant shigellosis infections, and it looks like most of these cases are being driven by one strain in particular. The CDC said as many as 5 percent of all shigella cases in 2022 were linked to XDR, which is up from 1 percent in 2019.

There are a couple of theories for how this drug-resistant strain came to be — for instance, The Washington Post speculates uncharacteristically high levels of antibiotic use during the coronavirus pandemic likely allowed drug resistance to take hold and spread throughout the general public, but that’s just one guess.

How does Shigella spread?

The CDC says shigella can be “easily” spread in various ways, but it’s mainly through direct person-to-person contact. For example, you could be changing your niece’s or grandchild’s diaper, get the bacteria on your hands and then touch your mouth, leading to an infection.

The bacteria can also be transmitted indirectly through contaminated food, water, and sexual contact, specifically between two men. But as far as those who are at most risk, federal health officials say the recent increase in the XDR strain has most commonly been seen in homeless people, and immunocompromised people, such as those living with HIV. This notably differs from past outbreaks, which have predominantly affected kids under the age of 4.

How can you prevent Shigella?

The good news is shigella, including even recent strains, can be prevented for the most part by frequent hand washing, something many of us hopefully mastered during the coronavirus pandemic.

Even if you do come down with it, most people usually recover with simple rest and hydration. For the most part, infections rarely lead to death: Shigella causes roughly 450,000 infections in the United States each year, while only around 40 people die each year from it, according to the National Institutes of Health.

But it could be a different story for people with weakened immune systems, including those who are receiving chemotherapy. These groups tend to be more susceptible to severe cases, which can spread to the blood and become life-threatening. So your best bet is to keep your hands clean and follow basic hygiene protocols.

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