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Foodborne Infection by Shigella – Shigellosis Food Poisoning

What is Shigella infection?

  • Shigella infection, also known as shigellosis, is a type of acute gastrointestinal tract infection caused by bacteria belonging to the Shigella species. This infection primarily affects the ileal and colonic epithelium, leading to a condition known as bacillary dysentery. Shigella infections are more commonly reported in poor, underdeveloped, and developing countries, where inadequate hygiene practices, lack of sanitation, and limited access to healthcare facilities contribute to its spread.
  • Shigella infection can have severe consequences, particularly among children under the age of 5 who are already malnourished. The mortality rate of shigellosis is high in this vulnerable population group. The infection results in significant nutrient loss due to the excessive diarrhea, electrolyte imbalances, and blood loss, which can ultimately lead to death if not properly managed.
  • The Shigella species are classified into four serogroups: S. dysenteriae (serogroup A), S. flexneri (serogroup B), S. boydii (serogroup C), and S. sonnei (serogroup D). Among these, S. dysenteriae Type 1 is particularly notorious for causing deadly epidemic outbreaks. The other serotypes generally cause fewer and less severe cases of the disease.
  • Prevention and control of Shigella infections primarily involve improving hygiene practices, ensuring access to clean water and sanitation facilities, and promoting proper handwashing. Additionally, implementing effective public health measures, such as safe food handling practices and appropriate waste disposal, can help reduce the transmission of Shigella bacteria.
  • In terms of treatment, rehydration therapy plays a crucial role in managing Shigella infection. Oral rehydration solutions or, in severe cases, intravenous fluids may be necessary to replace lost fluids and electrolytes. Antibiotic treatment may also be prescribed in certain cases to shorten the duration and severity of the illness, prevent complications, and reduce the risk of transmission to others.
  • Overall, Shigella infection is a significant public health concern, particularly in areas with poor sanitation and limited access to healthcare. Addressing the underlying factors contributing to the spread of this infection, such as improving hygiene practices and providing adequate healthcare infrastructure, is essential in reducing the burden of shigellosis and preventing associated mortality, particularly among vulnerable populations like young children.

Biological characteristics of Shigella

Shigella bacteria possess several distinctive biological characteristics that contribute to their ability to cause infection and survive in various environments. Here are the key biological characteristics of Shigella:

  1. Gram-negative: Shigella bacteria are classified as Gram-negative, which refers to their staining properties in the Gram stain technique. This characteristic is important for identifying and categorizing bacteria.
  2. Facultative anaerobes: Shigella species are facultative anaerobes, meaning they can survive and grow in both aerobic (oxygen-rich) and anaerobic (low oxygen or oxygen-free) environments.
  3. Non-sporulating: Unlike some other bacteria, Shigella does not produce spores, which are specialized structures that enable survival in harsh conditions and resistance to disinfection methods.
  4. Non-motile: Shigella bacteria are non-motile, lacking flagella or other means of independent movement. This characteristic contributes to their limited ability to spread within the host and between individuals.
  5. Non-encapsulated: Shigella bacteria do not possess a capsule, a protective outer layer that some bacteria use to evade the host’s immune system. The absence of a capsule may make Shigella more susceptible to immune responses.
  6. Prokaryotic rods: Shigella belongs to the prokaryotic group of organisms, characterized by lacking a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles. Shigella bacteria are rod-shaped (bacilli), which aids in their identification under a microscope.
  7. Optimum temperature: Shigella bacteria thrive within a temperature range of 7 to 46°C. This optimal temperature range allows them to grow and reproduce efficiently, particularly within the human gastrointestinal tract.
  8. Tolerance to harsh conditions: Shigella species have the ability to survive in harsh physical and chemical conditions. They can resist up to 5% NaCl (salt concentration) and variations in pH levels, enabling their persistence in diverse environments.
  9. Sensitivity to pasteurization: Shigella bacteria are sensitive to pasteurization temperature. Pasteurization, a heat treatment commonly used to kill pathogens in food and beverages, can effectively eliminate Shigella, reducing the risk of transmission through contaminated food and drinks.

Sources and transmission of Shigella infection

  • Shigella infection can be traced back to its main reservoir, which is the intestinal tract of humans. While Shigella infections are rarely found in animals, humans are considered the primary source and host for this pathogen. The transmission of Shigella occurs primarily through the fecal-oral route or through direct person-to-person contact.
  • The fecal-oral route involves the ingestion of food or water that has been contaminated with Shigella bacteria. This contamination occurs when individuals infected with Shigella pass the bacteria in their feces, and then the bacteria spread to others when proper hygiene practices are not followed. This can happen, for example, when infected individuals do not wash their hands properly after using the toilet, allowing the bacteria to contaminate surfaces, objects, food, or water sources.
  • Water and food contaminated with human feces are the primary sources of Shigella infection. Inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene practices contribute to the contamination of water sources, making it unsafe for consumption. Contaminated water used for irrigation by farmers can also lead to the contamination of vegetables and fruits, further spreading the bacteria.
  • Children and infants, particularly in poor and developing countries, are more susceptible to shigellosis due to several factors. These include the lack of sanitary facilities, limited access to clean water, and poor hygienic practices. In these settings, the close contact between infected individuals, insufficient handwashing, and unsanitary living conditions contribute to the easy transmission of Shigella bacteria among children and infants.
  • Preventing the sources and transmission of Shigella infection involves implementing various measures. Improving sanitation facilities, ensuring access to clean water, and promoting proper hygiene practices, especially handwashing with soap, are essential in reducing the risk of Shigella transmission. Additionally, proper food handling and preparation, including thorough cooking and avoiding consumption of contaminated water or food, are important preventive measures.
  • Education and awareness campaigns regarding good hygiene practices, especially targeting vulnerable populations such as children and caregivers, can also help reduce the incidence of Shigella infection. Implementing effective public health strategies to address the underlying factors contributing to the transmission of Shigella, such as poverty, lack of infrastructure, and inadequate healthcare, is crucial in controlling and preventing the spread of this infection.

Epidemiology of Shigella infection

The epidemiology of Shigella infection provides insights into the historical background, transmission dynamics, and global burden of the disease. Here is an overview of the epidemiology of Shigella infection:

  • Discovery and Naming: Shigella dysenteriae, one of the species within the Shigella genus, was named after the Japanese microbiologist Kiyoshi Shiga. He conducted investigations during a major dysentery epidemic that took place in Japan in 1896. This pioneering work led to the identification and understanding of the bacterium responsible for causing dysentery.
  • Infectious Dose: Shigella is highly infectious, as even a small number of bacterial cells (10 to 100) can cause shigellosis. In comparison, many other pathogens typically require a larger bacterial load (ranging from 1,000 to 100,000 cells) to cause infection.
  • Global Burden: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 165 million cases of shigellosis occur worldwide each year, resulting in an estimated 55,000 deaths, with children under the age of five being particularly vulnerable. Shigella infections contribute significantly to the burden of diarrheal diseases, especially in low-resource settings.
  • Outbreaks: Shigella outbreaks can occur sporadically or in localized clusters. An example of a sporadic outbreak took place in Kolkata, India, where S. dysenteriae and S. flexneri were isolated from stool samples of infected individuals. These outbreaks highlight the potential for rapid transmission within communities and the importance of prompt identification and control measures.
  • Regional Distribution: Shigella infections have shown a higher incidence in specific regions, with endemic and epidemic cases frequently reported in South Asia and East Africa over the past few decades. These areas are often characterized by inadequate sanitation, poor hygiene practices, and limited access to clean water, creating an environment conducive to the transmission of Shigella.

Diseases and symptoms of Shigella infection

Shigella infection manifests as a range of diseases and symptoms that can vary in severity. Here is an overview of the diseases and symptoms associated with Shigella infection:

  1. Onset of Symptoms: Symptoms of Shigella infection typically appear after 1 to 3 days of ingesting the bacterial cells, although the exact timing depends on the dose ingested and can range from 12 hours to 7 days.
  2. Typical Symptoms: The most common symptoms of Shigella infection include fever, loss of appetite, abdominal pain or cramps, and the presence of bloody or watery diarrhea. Inflammation of the colon, fatigue, malaise, and fever are also common manifestations of the infection.
  3. Dehydration: Shigella infection can lead to dehydration in some cases. The excessive loss of watery fluid through diarrhea can result in dehydration, although it is usually rare and not a significant concern. However, in certain vulnerable populations, such as young children, dehydration should be actively managed to prevent complications.
  4. Anorexia and Malnutrition: Anorexia, or loss of appetite, and malnutrition are significant concerns associated with Shigella infection, particularly in children under 5 years of age. Active management of anorexia and malnutrition is crucial, as they can be the main cause of death in this age group.
  5. Neurological Disorders: In some cases, Shigella infection may lead to the development of neurological disorders. Symptoms such as lethargy, irregular body movements, and headaches can occur. These neurological manifestations require appropriate medical attention and management.
  6. Duration of Illness: Shigella infection typically resolves on its own within 5 to 7 days. However, it’s important to note that even after the symptoms subside, an infected person may continue to shed the bacteria in their feces for an extended period. This asymptomatic shedding poses a threat of spreading the infection to others.

Mechanism of toxicity of Shigella infection

The mechanism of toxicity in Shigella infection involves several steps that contribute to tissue damage and inflammation. Here is an overview of the mechanism of toxicity associated with Shigella infection:

  1. Entry and Resistance: Shigella enters the body orally and reaches the large intestine. It can resist the acidic pH of the stomach and does not adhere to the small intestine due to increased movement of epithelial cells and rapid liquid flux.
  2. Binding and Invasion: Shigella binds to M cells in the intestinal epithelium layer and enters vacuoles. The pathogen then escapes from the vacuoles and invades macrophages, which engulf the bacteria through phagocytosis. This invasion can induce apoptosis (cell death) in the macrophages.
  3. Replication and Spread: Once in the large intestine, Shigella rapidly reproduces and spreads through the epithelial layer, causing tissue destruction and inflammation. The bacteria move from one cell to another, engulfed within a plasma membrane, facilitating intracellular replication and cell-to-cell bacterial spread.
  4. Mitochondrial Destruction and Necrosis: S. flexneri, a specific serotype of Shigella, is known to destroy mitochondria in host cells. This destruction is caused by the release of the proinflammatory cytokine IL-12, which leads to necrosis in the host’s body.
  5. Host Immune Response: The host’s immune system plays a role in inflammation and ulceration of the mucosal layer. This response is not directly associated with the intracellular multiplication of the pathogen but contributes to tissue damage and inflammation.
  6. Shiga Toxin Production: S. dysenteriae produces a potent toxin called Shiga toxin, which plays a significant role in the pathogenesis of Shigella infection. This toxin enters host cells through endocytosis and disrupts protein synthesis, ultimately leading to cell death. The presence of Shiga toxin is responsible for the characteristic symptom of bloody diarrhea in Shigellosis.
  7. Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) Endotoxin: The lipopolysaccharide (LPS) layer of gram-negative bacteria, including Shigella, acts as an endotoxin. The release of LPS occurs when the bacterial cell is destroyed, causing damage to the epithelial tissues and contributing to the inflammatory response.

Laboratory diagnosis of Shigella

The laboratory diagnosis of Shigella infection involves various methods and techniques. Here is an overview of the different approaches used for the diagnosis of Shigella:

  1. Bacterial Culture Methods: Stool samples from patients with clinical signs of dysentery are collected and immediately tested, as the viability of Shigella outside the host body is limited. The sample should be collected during the early stage of infection to increase the chances of isolating the bacteria. Selective media such as MacConkey agar, Salmonella-Shigella agar, and Xylose-Lysine Deoxycholate agar are used to promote the growth of Shigella.
  2. Bioassays: Animal models, including guinea pigs, rodents, rabbits, and monkeys, can be administered Shigella orally to observe the effects of the pathogen. These bioassays may show visible inflammatory reactions in the eye followed by tissue damage in the large intestine. However, the use of animals in laboratory testing is restricted due to ethical concerns.
  3. Immunological Assays: Enzyme immunoassay (EIA) kits, also known as dot blot assays, are available for the detection of Shigella pathogens. EIA kits have a high efficiency rate of around 94% and are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Other immunological assays used for Shigella diagnosis include latex agglutination tests, dipstick immunoassays, and the Wellcolex Color Shigella test (WCT-Shigella).
  4. Molecular Techniques: Molecular techniques such as matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization-time of flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS) provide a reliable and rapid method for detecting Shigella genes. Conventional polymerase chain reaction (PCR) has also been used to detect various species of Shigella by targeting specific genes such as ipaH, virA, iral, LPS, and plasmid DNA.

These laboratory diagnostic methods aid in the identification and confirmation of Shigella infection. Prompt and accurate diagnosis is crucial for appropriate patient management, implementing infection control measures, and monitoring the spread of Shigella in a population.

Treatment of Shigellosis

The treatment of shigellosis involves a combination of antibiotic therapy and supportive care. Here are the key points regarding the treatment of shigellosis:

  1. Antibiotic Treatment: A person with shigellosis symptoms should receive antibiotic treatment. However, it is important to note that some strains of Shigella have developed resistance to certain antibiotics. Ciprofloxacin, ampicillin, sulfamethoxazole, and nalidixic acid have shown effectiveness against Shigella and are still being used in clinical trials. Currently, fluoroquinolones (such as ciprofloxacin) and azithromycin are commonly used antibiotics for treating shigellosis. The choice of antibiotic may depend on local antibiotic resistance patterns and individual patient factors.
  2. Early Initiation: Treatment should be initiated early in the course of illness to reduce the severity and duration of symptoms, prevent complications, and minimize the risk of transmission to others. Prompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic therapy are crucial for effective management.
  3. Supportive Care: In addition to antibiotic treatment, supportive care is an important aspect of managing shigellosis. Oral rehydration therapy (ORT) is a common treatment method and involves the consumption of oral rehydration solutions (ORS) to replace lost fluids and electrolytes due to diarrhea. Intravenous fluid therapy may be necessary in severe cases or when oral intake is not feasible.
  4. Monitoring and Follow-up: Close monitoring of the patient’s condition is essential throughout the treatment process. Follow-up visits with healthcare providers may be necessary to ensure recovery, assess response to treatment, and adjust therapy if needed.

Prevention and Control of Shigellosis

Prevention and control strategies play a crucial role in minimizing the occurrence and spread of shigellosis. Here are the key points regarding the prevention and control of shigellosis:

  1. Sanitation and Hygiene: Appropriate sanitation practices, including the provision of clean and functional toilets, proper disposal of feces, and maintaining a clean environment, are vital in preventing shigellosis. Good personal hygiene, such as regular handwashing with soap and clean water, is essential, especially before handling food, after using the toilet, or after contact with potentially contaminated surfaces.
  2. Food Safety: Food-borne transmission of shigellosis can be prevented by avoiding the consumption of food prepared by individuals showing symptoms of a digestive disorder. Proper handling and storage of food, including thorough cooking, proper refrigeration, and avoiding cross-contamination between raw and cooked food, can help prevent bacterial proliferation and reduce the risk of contamination.
  3. Water and Food Hygiene: Washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly, particularly with chlorinated water or safe water sources, before consumption can help remove potential contaminants, including Shigella bacteria. It is important to ensure access to clean and safe water for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene practices.
  4. Health Education: Educating communities, especially in underdeveloped and developing countries where shigellosis is more prevalent, about good hygiene practices, proper sanitation, and the importance of avoiding food and water that may be fecally contaminated is crucial. Promoting awareness of shigellosis and its prevention measures can empower individuals to take proactive steps in reducing the risk of infection.
  5. Nutritional Support: During illness, promoting nutrition-rich foods and ensuring access to a balanced diet is important, particularly for vulnerable populations such as children under 5 years of age. Proper nutrition helps strengthen the immune system and can aid in faster recovery.


What is shigellosis food poisoning?

Shigellosis food poisoning is a gastrointestinal infection caused by the bacteria Shigella. It is typically contracted by consuming food or water contaminated with Shigella bacteria.

How does Shigella bacteria contaminate food?

Shigella bacteria can contaminate food through various means, such as poor food handling practices, improper hygiene during food preparation, or using contaminated water for irrigation or washing produce.

What are the symptoms of shigellosis food poisoning?

Symptoms of shigellosis food poisoning include diarrhea (often bloody or watery), abdominal pain or cramps, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Some individuals may also experience dehydration.

How long does it take for symptoms to appear after consuming contaminated food?

The onset of symptoms typically occurs within 1 to 3 days after consuming food contaminated with Shigella bacteria, although it can range from 12 hours to 7 days.

Can shigellosis food poisoning be treated with antibiotics?

Yes, shigellosis food poisoning can be treated with antibiotics. However, it is important to consult a healthcare professional for appropriate diagnosis and treatment, as antibiotic resistance can be a concern.

How long does shigellosis food poisoning usually last?

Shigellosis food poisoning typically lasts for about 5 to 7 days. However, the duration may vary depending on individual factors and the severity of the infection.

How is shigellosis food poisoning diagnosed?

Diagnosis of shigellosis food poisoning is usually confirmed through laboratory tests on stool samples. These tests help identify the presence of Shigella bacteria or their toxins.

Can shigellosis food poisoning be prevented?

Yes, shigellosis food poisoning can be prevented. Practicing good food hygiene, including proper handwashing, safe food handling, avoiding cross-contamination, and ensuring food is thoroughly cooked, can help reduce the risk of contamination.

Are there specific foods that are commonly associated with shigellosis food poisoning?

Shigella bacteria can contaminate a variety of foods, but certain foods are commonly associated with shigellosis outbreaks. These include raw or undercooked seafood, raw fruits and vegetables, and foods that require hand preparation.

How can outbreaks of shigellosis food poisoning be controlled?

Controlling outbreaks of shigellosis food poisoning involves identifying the source of contamination, implementing appropriate hygiene measures, and providing education and awareness about safe food handling practices. Prompt reporting and investigation of outbreaks are crucial for effective control measures.


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What is Karyotyping? What are the scope of Microbiology? What is DNA Library? What is Simple Staining? What is Negative Staining? What is Western Blot? What are Transgenic Plants? Breakthrough Discovery: Crystal Cells in Fruit Flies Key to Oxygen Transport What is Northern Blotting? What is Southern Blotting?
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