Shigella species

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Shigella species

Shigella spp. are bacteria that cause shigellosis, also known as bacillary dysentery. They are a highly infectious organism, with foodborne outbreaks often involving infected food handlers. Unlike other common foodborne pathogens, humans are the only natural hosts of Shigella spp.

Description of the organism
Shigella spp. are Gram-negative, non-spore forming rod-shaped bacteria and are members of the family Enterobacteriaceae. The genus Shigella is divided into four species based on their O antigen type and biochemical characteristics: S. dysenteriae (comprising
15 serotypes), S. flexneri (comprising 14 serotypes), S. boydii (comprising 20 serotypes) and S. sonnei (1 serotype) (Lampel and Maurelli 2003; Levine et al. 2007).
The most severe form of shigellosis is caused by S. dysenteriae serotype 1. S. sonnei causes the mildest form of disease, while S. flexneri and S. boydii can cause either severe or mild illness (FDA 2012). In Australia, S. sonnei was the most frequently reported species in 2010, representing 55.6% of all notified Shigella infections (OzFoodNet 2012).
S. dysenteriae serotype 1 is very rare in Australia, with all reported cases acquired overseas (Lightfoot 2003).

Growth and survival characteristics

The growth and survival of Shigella spp. in foods is influenced by a number of factors such as temperature, pH, salt content and the presence of preservatives (refer to Table 1). For example, survival of S. flexneri has been shown to increase with: decreasing temperature, increasing pH, and decreasing NaCl concentration (Zaika and Phillips 2005).

The temperature range for growth of Shigella spp. is 6–8 to 45–47°C (ICMSF 1996). Rapid inactivation occurs at temperatures around 65°C. In contrast, under frozen (-20°C) or refrigerated (4°C) conditions Shigella spp. can survive for extended periods of time (Lightfoot 2003; Warren et al. 2006).
Shigella spp. grow in a pH range of 5–9 (ICMSF 1996). Zaika (2001) demonstrated that
S. flexneri is tolerant to acid and can survive at pH 4 for 5 days in broth when incubated at 28°C. Shigella spp. are better able to survive lower pH conditions at reduced temperatures, with S. flexneri and S. sonnei able to survive for 14 days in tomato juice (pH 3.9–4.1) and apple juice (pH 3.3–3.4) stored at 7°C (Bagamboula et al. 2002).
S. flexneri is salt tolerant and is able to grow in media containing 7% NaCl at 28°C (Zaika 2002a). It is sensitive to organic acids typically used to preserve food. For example, lactic acid has been demonstrated to be effective at inhibiting S. flexneri growth, followed in order by acetic acid, citric acid, malic acid and tartaric acid (Zaika 2002b).
Shigella spp. have been shown to survive on various surfaces. S. sonnei has been isolated and cultured from fingers several hours after hand contamination (Christie 1968). A study by Nakamura (1962) demonstrated that S. sonnei was able to survive on cotton, glass, wood, paper and metal with survival times ranging from 2 days on metal to 28 days on paper at 15°C. S. dysenteriae serotype 1 has also been shown to survive on surfaces including plastic, glass, aluminium, wood and cloth (Islam et al. 2001).
S. sonnei, S. flexneri and S. dysenteriae serotype 1 can take on a viable but non-culturable (VBNC) state when exposed to various environmental conditions. These VBNC cells are able to survive in a dormant state while culturable cells die off (Colwell et al. 1985; Islam et al. 2001). A study by Nicolo et al. (2011) demonstrated that S. flexneri lost culturability when inoculated into grapefruit juice, however, when the VBNC S. flexneri was inoculated into resuscitating media it was able to grow again. As the VBNC cells are potentially still virulent and able to be resuscitated, they may be involved in shigellosis transmission (Colwell et al. 1985; Islam et al. 2001; Nicolo et al. 2011).
Table 1: Limits for growth of Shigella spp. when other conditions are near optimum (ICMSF 1996; Lightfoot 2003)




Temperature (°C)








NaCl (%)




Symptoms of disease

The clinical symptoms of shigellosis range from mild diarrhoea to severe dysentery, depending on the Shigella serotype causing infection, dose and the immunity and age of the host. The incubation period is 1–7 days (usually 3 days) and symptoms typically last for

1–2 weeks (Lampel and Maurelli 2007). Initial symptoms include watery diarrhoea, fever and fatigue. In more severe cases, as is the case for S. dysenteriae serotype 1 infection, patients can develop dysentery (characterised by frequent, painful stools containing blood and mucus), abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting (Niyogi 2005; Nygren et al. 2012). All Shigella spp. can cause acute bloody diarrhoea (FDA 2012).
For most Shigella serotypes illness is generally self-limiting and fatality is very rare, however, the fatality rate for S. dysenteriae serotype 1 can be as high as 20% (Lampel and Maurelli 2003). Cases may develop long-term sequelae such as Reiter’s syndrome (reactive arthritis) following S. flexneri infection, and haemolytic uremic syndrome following
S. dysenteriae serotype 1 infection (Warren et al. 2006).
Shigella spp. are shed in large numbers (103–109 cfu/g of stool) during the acute phase of infection and to a lesser extent (102–103 cfu/g of stool) in convalescing patients. Adults who live in areas where shigellosis is endemic may become asymptomatic carriers (continue to shed the bacteria but show no sign of infection) (Lampel and Maurelli 2003).

Virulence and infectivity

Once ingested, Shigella spp. must survive the acidic environment of the stomach and invade the epithelial cells of the colon to enable infection. Shigella spp. multiply inside the colonic epithelial cells and spread to adjacent cells, leading to the death of the infected cells. The colon becomes inflamed and ulcerated and the dead mucoid cells are shed, resulting in the bloody mucoid diarrhoea often characteristic of Shigella infection (Lightfoot 2003; Montville and Matthews 2005; Warren et al. 2006).

Shigella spp. have a virulence plasmid that encodes genes involved in the invasion process and intra- and inter-cellular spread. Other genes involved in the invasion process are located on the chromosome (Warren et al. 2006). S. flexneri 2a produce the chromosome encoded shigella enterotoxin 1, while most Shigella serotypes produce the virulence plasmid encoded shigella enterotoxin 2. S. dysenteriae serotype 1 strains produce the potent Shiga toxin. Shiga toxin is chromosomally encoded and has cytotoxic, enterotoxic and neurotoxic effects (Niyogi 2005; Warren et al. 2006).

Mode of transmission

Shigella spp. are transmitted by the faecal-oral route by either person-to-person contact, or consumption of contaminated food or water (Nygren et al. 2012).
Nygren et al. (2012) analysed 120 reported foodborne shigellosis outbreaks in the United States (US) between 1998–2008. The contributing factors identified in these outbreaks included infected food handlers (58%), bare-handed contact of the food handler with ready-to-eat food (38%), inadequate cold-holding temperatures (15%), and inadequate cleaning of food preparation equipment (15%). It should be noted that more than one factor can be involved in an outbreak.
Contaminated water is another vehicle for transmission of Shigella spp. This can occur due to inadequately treated contaminated water being used for drinking and food preparation, seepage of sewage through the earth, or faecal contamination of recreational water (Lightfoot 2003).

Incidence of illness and outbreak data

Shigellosis is a notifiable disease in all Australian states and territories. The incidence of shigellosis in Australia in 2012 was 2.4 cases per 100,000 population (549 cases), which includes both foodborne and non-foodborne cases. This was a decrease from the previous

5 year mean of 2.8 cases per 100,000 population per year (ranging from 2.2–3.9 cases per 100,000 population per year) (NNDSS 2013).
The Northern Territory had the highest notification rate in 2012 with 46.9 cases per
100,000 population (NNDSS 2013). This was a significant reduction from the 2005–2009 average annual notification rate of 70.1 cases per 100,000 population. The decline in cases may be attributed to a marketing campaign to raise awareness about the importance of hand washing implemented in 2007/2008 targeting both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, including remote communities (OzFoodNet 2012).
Children between 0–4 years had the highest notification rate in 2010, with 7.5 and 8.3 notifications per 100,000 population for males and females, respectively (OzFoodNet 2012). The higher rate of notified cases in this age group could be due to increased susceptibility or may be the result of other factors such as reduced personal hygiene practices, an increased likelihood of exposure and increased likelihood to seek medical care.
The notification rate for shigellosis in New Zealand in 2011 was 2.3 cases per
100,000 population (101 cases). This was similar to the 2010 rate of 2.4 cases per
100,000 population (Lim et al. 2012).
In the US, 4.82 cases of shigellosis were notified per 100,000 population in 2010. This was a slight decrease from the 2009 rate of 5.24 cases per 100,000 population (CDC 2012). In the European Union there was three strong evidence foodborne outbreaks of shigellosis in 2011 and one outbreak reported in 2010 (EFSA 2012; EFSA 2013).
Foods generally associated with outbreaks of Shigella spp. are those that are consumed raw or ready-to-eat foods that have substantial handling during production, such as salads (refer to Table 2).
Table 2: Selected major foodborne outbreaks associated with Shigella spp. (>50 cases and/or ≥1 fatality)



Total no. cases






S. sonnei


Baby corn

Australia and Denmark

Corn from a common packing shed in Thailand, sub-hygienic practices at collection houses and packing shed

(Lewis et al. 2009)


S. sonnei


Raw carrot


Food hygiene deficiencies of caterer, chlorine vegetable sanitiser malfunctioning

(Gaynor et al. 2009)


S. flexneri 2a




Contamination likely to have occurred during hand sorting of tomatoes

(Reller et al. 2006)


S. sonnei


Commercially prepared dip


Contamination thought to be from infected employee at the production facility

(Kimura et al. 2004)


S. sonnei



US and Canada

Most parsley sourced from a common farm in Mexico which used inadequately chlorinated water that was vulnerable to contamination

(Naimi et al. 2003)


S. sonnei


Fresh cheese made from pasteurised milk


Infected food handler at the cheese factory, unhygienic practices at the factory

(Garcia-Fulgueiras et al. 2001)


S. sonnei



Uncooked tofu salad


Food handlers recently had shigellosis

(Lee et al. 1991)

Occurrence in food

There is very little published surveillance data on the presence of Shigella in food. Some international surveys have been performed in which Shigella spp. have been found in a range in foods. For example, Ghosh et al. (2007) isolated Shigella spp. from 15% of coconut slices (n=150), 9% of ready-to-eat salads (n=150) and 7% of samples of coriander sauces (n=150) from Indian street vendors. Shigella spp. have also been detected in 11% of raw meat samples (n=250) from retail outlets in Pakistan (Hassan Ali et al. 2010). In Mexico, Shigella spp. have been isolated from 6% of freshly squeezed orange juice samples (n=100) and from the surface of 17% of oranges sampled (n=75). All four Shigella spp. were isolated from the surface of the oranges, whereas only S. sonnei and S. dysenteriae were isolated from the orange juice samples (Castillo et al. 2006).

Although Shigella can be isolated from a range of food, outbreaks often occur due to an infected food handler contaminating food that is served cold or raw. A study of foodborne shigellosis outbreaks in the US demonstrated that 20% of outbreaks were due to exclusively raw food (e.g. lettuce based salads) and 30% of outbreaks were from partially raw food
(e.g. potato salad) (Nygren et al. 2012).

Host factors that influence disease
People of all ages are susceptible to Shigella spp. infection. However, infants, the elderly and immunocompromised individuals are most at risk (FDA 2012).
Protective immunity against Shigella infection can occur as a result of repeated exposure to the organism (Barnoy et al. 2010). A study by Ferreccio et al. (1991) tracked shigellosis in a cohort of children in Chile over 30 months. A previous case of shigellosis was found to confer 72% protection against illness with the same Shigella serotype. However, prior infection did not protect against illness due to other Shigella serotypes. This serotype-specific immunity is mediated, at least in part, by antibodies directed at the O antigen of the lipopolysaccharide that forms part of the bacterial cell wall. As the O antigen varies between serotypes, the immunity is serotype-specific (Levine et al. 2007; Kweon 2008).
Research into candidate vaccines against shigellosis has been performed for many years. Various live attenuated S. flexneri 2a vaccines have been trialled in animals and humans, and whilst shown to protect vaccinated individuals from S. flexneri 2a infection, immunity appears to be serotype-specific (Mel et al. 1965; Coster et al. 1999; Ranallo et al. 2012). Non-replicating vaccines including inactivated whole cell and subunit vaccines have also been trialled (Kaminski and Oaks 2009). A S. sonnei conjugate vaccine provided significant protection against shigellosis in the field; however it was only effective against S. sonnei infection (Cohen et al. 1997).
An experimental trivalent vaccine has been constructed which expressed the O antigens of S. flexneri 2a and S. sonnei and the Vibrio cholera toxin B subunit antigen. The trivalent vaccine was able to protect mice and rhesus monkeys from infection with S. flexneri 2a and S. sonnei (Wang et al. 2002). A pentavalent vaccine has been proposed consisting of
S. flexneri 2a and 3a (cross-protection between most S. flexneri serotypes has been achieved in guinea pigs due to a common O antigen carbohydrate backbone), S. flexneri 6 (which does not cross-react with the other S. flexneri serotypes), S. dysenteriae serotype 1 and S. sonnei. Hypothetically, this could protect against the majority of the causes of shigellosis in the world (Noreiga et al. 1999; Levine et al. 2007).

Dose response

Very little data is available on the dose-response relationship for Shigella spp. During the 1960s and 1970s, human feeding trials using strains of S. dysenteriae serotype 1,

S. flexneri, and S. sonnei were performed to determine the dose required to cause shigellosis. The dose response varied between strains; illness was caused by
S. dysenteriae
serotype 1, S. flexneri, or S. sonnei with ingestion of 10, 100 and 500 organisms, respectively (DuPont et al. 1989).

Recommended reading and useful links
FDA (2012) Bad bug book: Foodborne pathogenic microorganisms and natural toxins handbook, 2nd ed, US Food and Drug Administration, Silver Spring, p. 25–28.
Lightfoot D (2003) Shigella. Ch 17 In: Hocking AD (ed) Foodborne microorganisms of public health significance. 6th ed, Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology (NSW Branch), Sydney, p. 543-552
Warren BR, Parish ME, Schneider KR (2006) Shigella as a foodborne pathogen and current methods for detection in food. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 46:551-567


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Castillo A, Villarruel-Lopez A, Navarro-Hidalgo V, Martinez-Gonzalez NE, Torres-Vitela MR (2006) Salmonella and Shigella in freshly squeezed orange juice, fresh oranges, and wiping cloths collected from public markets and street booths in Guadalajara, Mexico: Incidence and comparison of analytical routes. Journal of Food Protection 69(11):2595–2599

CDC (2012) Summary of notifiable diseases - United States, 2010. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 59(53):1–111

Christie AB (1968) Bacillary dysentery. British Medical Journal 2:285–288

Cohen D, Ashkenazi S, Green MS, Gdalevich M, Robin G, Slepon R, Yavzori M, Orr N, Block C, Ashkenazi I, Shemer J, Taylor DN, Hale TL, Sadoff JC, Pavliakova D, Schneerson R, Robbins JB (1997) Double-blind vaccine-controlled randomised efficacy trial of an investigational Shigella sonnei conjugate vaccine in young adults. The Lancet 349:155–159

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EFSA (2013) The European Union summary report on trends and sources of zoonoses, zoonotic agents and foodborne outbreaks in 2011. EFSA Journal 11(4):3129

FDA (2012) Bad bug book: Foodborne pathogenic microorganisms and natural toxins handbook, 2nd ed. US Food and Drug Administration, Silver Spring, p. 25–28. Accessed 27 March 2013

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