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Dysentery outbreak on Downtown Eastside 'symptom of broader systemic malady'

Last Updated Mar 19, 2021 at 10:01 pm PDT

FILE - The Balmoral and Regent hotels are pictured in the downtown eastside in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, November 6, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

On Feb. 26, Vancouver Coastal Health informed doctors of the outbreak, saying more than 10 people had been hospitalized

A spokesperson for Union Gospel Mission says the shigella outbreak is hard to contain given inadequate housing, hygiene

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — People living on the Downtown Eastside are facing a third health crisis, on top of COVID-19 and the poisoned drug supply — an outbreak of dysentery caused by the shigella bacteria.

On Feb. 26, Vancouver Coastal Health informed doctors in the area of the outbreak. At that time “more than 10″ people who live on the Downtown Eastside had been hospitalized. That memo encouraged doctors to test for Shigellosis in patients with gastrointestinal symptoms if they ” are homeless, under-housed, or part of the social network of the Downtown Eastside.”  On Tuesday, writing for The Conversation Dr. Ben Huang, an emergency physician, said at least 20 cases have now been confirmed by the BC Centre for Disease Control.

“Shigellosis usually occurs in developing countries where sanitation is poor, making an outbreak in urban Vancouver, where I work as a resident emergency doctor, highly unusual,” he wrote.

Symptoms include causing bloody diarrhea, fever, nausea, and cramps. Containing the outbreak is challenging given that the bacteria is highly contagious, and “vigilant hand hygiene is necessary to prevent transmission.”

Nicole Mucci, a spokesperson for the Union Gospel Mission, says information about the outbreak is hard to access, and instructions for how to stop the spread are hard to follow.

“We’re really concerned for their safety, we’re concerned for their well-being. We know that the instructions on how to stay safe are so much harder for marginalized groups to even access,” she says.

“The shigella outbreak is a symptom of a broader systemic malady. Our community members need to have access to the same hygiene options and housing as anybody else.”

RELATED: COVID-19 pandemic amplifying need for public washrooms in Vancouver

Mucci says the conditions in shared accommodations like shelters and SROs mean an infection like this can spread unintentionally and rapidly.

“In many SROs there’s multiple people accessing a single bathroom stall, accessing kitchen facilities, they might be cleaned once a day or a couple of times a week. When there’s outbreaks like this, it can take just one person forgetting to wash their hands, or maybe not washing their hands for long enough, and accidentally contaminating an area and then a lot of people becoming sick,” she says, adding while public washrooms are necessary they are not a substitute for adequate housing.

“We need to see healthy and clean housing with supports for people. When people are housed, when they have access to safe and clean housing, they’re able to utilize facilities like washrooms and showers.”

UGM has posted notices about the outbreak on every single washroom stall in their building, but Mucci says the uncertainty that comes with a new illness spreading compounds existing issues.

“Not actually knowing what’s happening, not knowing where they can get accurate information or not having access to accurate health information can be really distressing and scary on top of the many other day-to-day problematic systematic barriers that they’re facing — like figuring out where their next meal is going to come from, figuring out if they have somewhere that’s going to be warm for them to sleep, worrying about their personal safety,” she says.

“We have so much concern about seeing this happening now. It’s a really daunting task for individuals to find adequate hygiene supports in the Downtown Eastside on top of everything else that they’re trying to do on a daily basis.”