CHARLOTTE — Sing happy birthday twice.
That is some of the advice Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris gave at a press conference July 2 that dealt with a Shigella outbreak that sickened more than 40 people July 1 at a birthday party at Forest Hills Apartments in east Charlotte.
Shigella is a type of bacteria that can be spread through fecal matter.
Harris said properly washing one’s hands with soap and warm water probably would have prevented the outbreak at the potluck and that proper hand washing in general is a good preventive exercise in stopping the spread of other illnesses.
“I was always taught to sing happy birthday twice while washing your hands,” Harris said. “People need to know what it means to wash your hands and to wash them well. A lick and a promise isn’t enough. You need to be scrubbing your hands, in between your fingers.”
Hand sanitizers are acceptable, but using soap and warm water is the most effective way to stop the spread of disease.
“That’s true across the board, whether you are preparing food or serving food,” Harris said. “We talk about that every year during flu season. Not cleaning your hands well is just a great way to spread disease.”
Officials also warned about not keeping cold and hot foods at their recommended temperatures, especially at this time of year when people are bringing food to events outside in the summer heat. Forty-five degrees and below is recommended for cold food storage while 140 degrees or higher is the recommended temperature for warm foods.
“They leave food sitting on the picnic table for the afternoon and then they go back and eat it,” Harris said. “That’s just a great breeding ground for the sorts of things we don’t want. People just need to be careful with their food.”
Mecklenburg County Environmental Health Director Daniel Ortiz said at the press conference that cross contamination is another source that can lead to sickness.
“You do not want to use the same knife you used to cut raw chicken to prepare your salads,” Ortiz said. “You also want to keep uncooked food products away from cooked products.”
At least four people had tested positive for Shigella from the potluck on July 1, but pinpointing the source is unlikely due to the amount of food that was brought to the event. Harris said it’s not related to the food itself, but how it was handled. She said someone likely didn’t wash their hands properly before preparing one of the potluck items for the party.
Thirty-three people were transported from the July 1 party to area emergency rooms and 18 were admitted. At least four people were admitted to the intensive care unit.
“You really don’t worry about the stuff that is grilled, it’s the salads,” Harris said. “Things that you mix things together is what we are concerned about, especially with Shigella.”
The July 1 case is unrelated to the incident last month at a Charlotte Hardee’s, where as many as 4,000 customers may have been exposed to hepatitis A after an employee at the restaurant tested positive for the disease.
According to the Mecklenburg County Health Department, hepatitis A spreads through the fecal matter of an infected person, most commonly by poor handwashing. Symptoms of the disease include nausea, fever, joint pain, fatigue, loss of appetite and stomach pain. Those symptoms can last for weeks to months.
Harris said at the July 2 press conference that almost 2,000 people had received a free hepatitis A vaccination as of July 1.
On the web: www.foodsafety.gov.