Dozens sick after eating food contaminated with feces at potluck birthday party

At least 40 people are sick after eating contaminated food at a potluck birthday party in east Charlotte on Saturday, Mecklenburg County health department officials said Monday.

Someone who prepared food for the party did not wash their hands well enough, Health Director Gibbie Harris said. Some partygoers are infected with a "highly contagious" disease called shigella, which causes diarrhea and is spread through feces, Harris said.

About 100 people attended the birthday party, and more may still get sick, as symptoms of shigella can take one to three days to show up after someone is infected, Communicable Disease Control Director Carmel Clements said. It's possible, however, for some people to get sick a whole week later, Clements said.

Most patients called 911 from the Forest Hills apartment complex, near where the party was held, according to Medic.

At least 19 people had been admitted to local hospitals by midday Monday, Harris said, and a few were in intensive care.

"The diarrhea is pretty significant," Harris said. "It's usually watery, and there's a lot of it, and it can go on for days, so most folks will seek care."

People experiencing shigella symptoms should either go to the hospital or contact the health department so officials can talk with them about avoiding dehydration and the spread of the disease, she said.

Health officials are sure that the contaminated dish was prepared in someone's home rather than a restaurant, Harris said, because the only outside food at the party was the birthday cake.

Anyone who brought food home from the event should avoid eating it and call the health department so someone can pick it up for testing, Harris said. Although officials doubt they'll be able to confirm which dish got people sick, she said.

"When you have events like that where you have 100 people, there might be four or five different bowls of potato salad," Harris said. "Someone might have taken potato salad home, we test it, it's positive, but which one of those bowls did it come from?"

Health department officials are still investigating the outbreak. They may ask people to stay home from work or day care if they're showing symptoms, Harris said. Anyone who works in food service, health care or child care should stay home if they're sick, she said.

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With the Fourth of July this week, everyone should be especially careful about preparing food for cookouts and parties, Environmental Health Director Daniel Ortiz said.

Avoid cross-contamination, like using the same utensils on uncooked meat and food that will be served raw, and keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Of course, washing hands is key — scrub thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, officials said.

Some people showing shigella symptoms will be given antibiotics, which will limit the time they're contagious, Harris said. Party attendees who haven't gotten sick do not need to get tested, and neighbors who didn't attend the party should just follow normal hand-washing practices.

Jane Wester: 704-358-5128, @janewester