Health agency issues warning over dysentery outbreak among gay men

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Sexual health experts at the Health Protection Agency (HPA) have issued an alert about an outbreak of an infection known as Shigella flexneri dysentery. It is thought that the infection is being transmitted between men during sex.

Since July this year, 14 cases have been identified in the Greater Manchester area, predominantly among men who have sex with men aged between 30-50 years. In addition, since May 2011, five cases of this illness have been reported in the London area in men who have sex with men.

While the increase in cases has so far only been detected in the Greater Manchester and London areas, it is likely that we will see increases in other areas across the UK. As a result, the HPA is stressing the need for men who have sex with men to consult their doctor if they have diarrhoea, especially if it is bloody, and for health professionals to be on the alert for possible cases in men who have sex with men.

Usually, most reported cases of dysentery in the UK are associated with foreign travel, where drinking water or food has been contaminated by human faeces. The main symptom of Shigella flexneri is bloody diarrhoea. People who are diagnosed with this illness can be treated with antibiotics, and most people in this country will make a full recovery and experience no complications.

Dr Isabel Oliver, head of the outbreak control team, said “It’s very uncommon to see outbreaks of this illness that are not linked to foreign travel. We are taking steps to raise awareness among the affected groups and health professionals and we’re monitoring the situation very closely, to help us understand how best to prevent the outbreak from spreading further.

“The key message here is for all men who have sex with men to go to their doctor if they have diarrhoea, to see whether they’re infected with Shigella flexneri. If they do have this illness, avoiding having sex until they’ve made a full recovery will reduce the risk of onward transmission. Washing hands thoroughly before preparing and eating food, after going to the toilet and, if having sex, before and afterwards, may also lower the risk of people with this illness spreading it to others. Ingesting even a small number of Shigella germs can lead to infection”.

In an attempt to establish the extent of the outbreak, the HPA has contacted specialists in infectious diseases and consultants in genitourinary medicine in the areas affected, to ask for specimens to be submitted to the laboratory if patients should present with symptoms that are suggestive of dysentery.