2 min

Shigella outbreak

Gay men vulnerable to intestinal disease

An old disease is rearing its bacterial head once again in Vancouver’s gay community.

Shigella are single-celled bacteria that infect human intestinal systems, kind of like e coli and salmonella. But you can’t catch it from eating tainted hamburger or unwashed chicken.

This one’s transmitted among gay men mainly through rimming.

Shigella is passed through the fecal-oral route, explains Dr Murray Fyfe, of BC’s Centre for Disease Control. That means if your mouth comes in contact with any trace of feces-whether through direct tongue-to-ass licking, a blowjob after unprotected anal sex, or unintentionally sticking your finger in your mouth after finger-fucking someone-you could become infected.

“It’s very transmissible,” Fyfe says.

And the symptoms aren’t pleasant. Very intense diarrhea, sometimes with blood or mucous in it, is standard, Fyfe says. Most people also run a fever and some suffer from very bad stomach or rectal cramps. A few have reported nausea, too.

Of course, most people with healthy immune systems recover in about a week, Fyfe says. But the risk of transmission doesn’t end there.

Carriers can keep passing the disease on to others even after they stop experiencing symptoms themselves.

That’s why Fyfe is urging anyone who thinks they might have shigella to get tested right away. If it is shigella, a doctor can prescribe some antibiotics to wipe the remaining cells out so they stop infecting others.

But you can’t just take any old antibiotic, Fyfe warns. You have to get your stool tested to see if it is shigella and then get the right treatment for that strain.

Fyfe has been tracking the recent upsurge in cases among gay men for the last few months. In the last week alone, nine more men have come forward.

That’s why prevention is so important, he says. If you rim, use a barrier, such as a dental dam or saran wrap to block direct mouth-to-ass contact. And wear latex gloves if you’re going to put your finger up someone’s ass.

And, perhaps most importantly, wash your hands with soap and water immediately after, and maybe even during, sex, he says. This disease also spreads quickly through food preparation when the person doing the preparing hasn’t washed their hands and still has traces of feces on their fingertips.

In fact, that’s how the disease may have gotten a new foothold in the community this time, Fyfe says, especially if someone travelled to Asia or South America where shigella is common.

No matter how it came back, now that it has been re-introduced into Vancouver’s gay community, it will take a conscious effort to prevent its transmission-and wipe out the existing cases before they spread further.

Shigella last made an appearance in the community in 2000; it took about nine months to wipe it out that time.