Shigellosis strikes Zephyrhills school; several students ill

Parents and experts speak out about the health hazard facing children.

ZEPHYRHILLS -- There’s been an outbreak of a bacterial infection at a private school in Zephyrhills and it has parents worried.

There are about two dozen cases of Shigellosis confirmed or under investigation since the Heritage Academy first started warning parents about it on Aug. 29.

The school is taking its cue from the Pasco County Health Department.

For now, classes are still taking place. But some parents say they would prefer that the school shut down completely and get a thorough top to bottom cleaning before more kids potentially get sick.

“I personally think that the school should've been shut down,” said Jessica Duncan, whose 12-year-old son is one of more than 20 students dealing with the outbreak of Shigellosis.

His symptoms are typical for the bacterial infection. “Vomiting, bloody diarrhea, dehydration,” said Duncan.

So far, the school says it has seen three confirmed cases in its pre-K program, but as many as 21 more suspected cases are under investigation affecting various age groups. 

“You know, you really want to get on it fast,” said Garik Nicholson, a disease specialist with the Pasco County Health Department.

Nicholson describes Shigellosis as a highly contagious bacterial infection similar to salmonella.

It can be spread through food or water contaminated with feces, or even contact with contaminated objects like bathroom faucets, handles, door knobs or toys.

“Especially in a school setting where kids maybe don't wash their hands the best and unfortunately they may touch things and other people come in contact with it and it spreads that way,” said Nicholson.

The school has now sent three letters home with parents letting them know that they're working with the department of health, which has imposed phase-one guidelines to help control the outbreak.

That means toys, play areas, classrooms and other common areas are repeatedly disinfected daily, “To make sure the school or whoever that institution is, that there cleaning those high touch areas,” said Nicholson.

Heritage Academy says it is following recommendations, mandating hand washing before and after meals and bathroom breaks.

Students with suspected cases of Shigellosis, including Duncan's son, can't go back to school until they've tested negative twice.

But what’s troubling, says Duncan, is that as far as she knows, the source of the outbreak has not yet been pinpointed. 

“So even if my son just go back, he's going to get it again. Because it's still going around,” she said.

The health department says it doesn't think it's necessary for an institution to shut down in order to rid itself of Shigellosis. But instructions need to be followed by the instruction, surfaces need to be kept clean, and keep people who've been infected need to be kept out until they're not showing symptoms any longer.

Antibiotics can be an effective treatment, say health experts, but if a patient is healthy enough to allow it to run its course, officials say they would prefer to go that route, in part because it can build up immunities so that patient is far less likely to ever get Shigellosis again. 


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