KU scientist keeping an eye on fast-spreading shigella outbreak in Kansas City

Wendy Picking

Kansas University pharmaceutical chemistry professor Wendy Picking has been researching shigella for more than 20 years and is in the process of creating a vaccine for it. Her target audience is developing countries, where shigella — an infectious diarrheal disease caused by bacteria — is a leading cause of death in young children.

But she’s watching with interest as an antibiotic-resistive outbreak of shigella unfolds in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

The Kansas City, Mo., Health Department announced Sept. 25 it had investigated more than 143 cases of shigella this year. In just more than a week, that count jumped to nearly 200 — with 173 cases confirmed as of Friday and more than 190 cases estimated now, health department spokesman Bill Snook said Monday. (Note: Douglas County does not appear to be affected at this time. Three cases, all adults, have been reported here this year, with the last being in July, according to Lawrence Douglas-County Health Department communications coordinator Karrey Britt.)

In normal years, Kansas City may have 10 cases of shigella, but about every five years there’s a larger outbreak like this, Snook said. He said other Kansas City suburbs have reported cases, too, primarily in day care children, younger elementary age children and caregivers. The disease is spread by fecal-oral contact, so handwashing after changing diapers or using the restroom and avoiding preparing food or drinks for others are important to prevent the spread.

What’s unusual and concerning about this outbreak, Snook said, is that they’re seeing at least three antibiotic-resistant patterns. Specifically, cases are “sonnei,” one of four categories of shigella and the most commonly seen in the United States.

I wrote about Picking and her husband Bill Picking, Foundation Distinguished professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, earlier this year — and during that interview admittedly heard about shigella for the first time. I wondered what someone like Wendy Picking would make of a close-to-home outbreak so I gave her a call.

Picking said she was surprised by the antibiotic-resistive angle of the outbreak. Medical doctors and epidemiologists are the ones handling it from a disease management perspective, she said, but she hopes to learn more from health officials that could help inform her study.

“Our interest in this lies purely from the basic science research that we could get out if it,” she said. “How are they capturing the antibiotic-resistant genes?”

Picking said her shigella vaccine is planned for human clinical trials next fall, the next step in a long and expensive process of getting it to the people whose lives it could save. She reiterated why she believes a vaccine is important for developing parts of the world.

In developed countries, including the United States, where water is clean and health care access is widespread, shigella does not carry the risk of death due to dehydration that it does elsewhere, Picking said.

But when a child gets shigella in a poor country with tainted water, and a parent has no means of providing rehydration with anything that doesn’t carry the pathogen, “there is just no way for them to survive,” Picking said.

Picking recalled reading in a World Health Organization bulletin about a mother who took her child, sickened by shigella, to a hospital but couldn’t afford to buy the 25-cent rehydration packet. The mother took the child to the local healer instead, but the child didn’t make it.

“That’s the sad world that we live in,” Picking said.



• Law prof at U.S. Supreme Court: KU law professor Stephen McAllister was scheduled to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court twice this week, his eighth and ninth appearances before the body, according to KU.

On Monday McAllister was scheduled to address the issue of alleged discrimination in banking, in the case of Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore. On Wednesday he’s supposed to argue on behalf of the state in the cases of Kansas v. brothers Jonathan Carr and Reginald Carr Jr. The Kansas Supreme Court previously overturned death sentences for the Carrs, convicted of a quadruple murder in Wichita in 2000.

• Third vice provost candidate announced: The third and final candidate for vice provost of undergraduate studies at KU is Anne Birberick, vice provost of undergraduate academic affairs at Northern Illinois University, KU announced Monday. Her public presentation is scheduled for 4 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. Wednesday in the Malott Room of the Kansas Union. More on Birberick here. The in-house candidate for the job is in Monday’s Heard on the Hill.

• ESU names first presidential finalist: Emporia State University has chosen two finalists to become its next president and named the first candidate Monday. Allison Garrett, Executive Vice President at Abilene Christian University, will visit the ESU campus Tuesday and Wednesday. The second candidate, who has not yet been named publicly, will visit campus Thursday and Friday, according to ESU.


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