'Exposure to feces' blamed after dozens sickened at neighborhood cookout

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Officials said almost half of the 100 people who attended a birthday party and cookout at an east Charlotte apartment complex over the weekend have come to area hospitals complaining of stomach problems as of Tuesday afternoon.

Officials believe a contagious bacterial infection is to blame for the illness that hit dozens of people and hospitalized several of them.

The Health Department is asking anyone with leftovers to call 980-314-1660 so investigators can test the food for contamination.

Emergency responders were first called to the Forest Hills Townhomes on Four Seasons Boulevard and Farm Pond Lane around 6 p.m. Sunday.

Paramedics believe the illness was linked to a neighborhood birthday party and cookout on Saturday night.

Damber Gurung, who lives next to one of the victims, said she was out of the hospital Monday.

"I think she's almost alright,” he said. “Yes, feeling better.”

Channel 9 crews were at the apartment complex as the sixth call came in and paramedics arrived with sirens blaring.

"(I hope) That they find out what it was and I don't get it or worry about it,” neighbor Angela Perez said.

Officials said the highly contagious bacteria Shigella was to blame for the illnesses after the food was contaminated with feces.

Seek medical attention if you experience these symptoms:

  • Loose bowel movements that may contain blood or mucus
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps

Health department officials said some of those hospitalized were in the Intensive Care Unit with serious symptoms and were being treated with antibiotics.

At least two of those in the ICU were children, officials said.

“What we're looking at is someone who prepared food for the event didn't wash hands well and that infection, which is highly contagious, which is called Shigella, transferred to individuals at the party,” said Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris.

(Click PLAY to watch health leaders discuss Shigella)

Neighbors said the party and cookout had a pretty big turnout and they're hoping their neighbors are OK.

We first updated WSOCTV news app users with a notification just before 11 a.m. Monday about the severity of the symptoms and how many people were hospitalized.

Download the WSOCTV news app for your smartphone and get updates on this developing story as they come in.

Most who are infected with Shigella develop diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps starting a day or two after they are exposed to the bacteria.

[LINK: CDC information on Shigella]

Health officials said those who contracted the bacteria were exposed to feces and they stressed the importance of thorough hand-washing.

Health officials said anyone who attended the party should not eat any food they may have taken home afterward. Anyone who still has food from the party is urged to call Environmental Health at 980-314-1660.

As July 4 approaches, many people are questioning how to make sure they stay healthy during cookouts and celebrations.

Channel 9 spoke with health officials who said when it comes to food, fecal bacteria is one of the biggest risks people face during cookouts and potlucks.

The bacteria is too small to see and many people don't wash their hands the recommended 20 seconds.

Hotel worker Kelvin Butler knows food safety procedures, but worries people don't follow the same standards when they're cooking for others at home.

"It definitely makes me think twice," Butler said. "Most of the time when you go to cookouts, you don't know who prepared the food."​

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