Local health officials are battling an outbreak of shigellosis, a disease that causes intestinal illness and affects mostly children.

Local health officials are battling an outbreak of shigellosis, a disease that causes intestinal illness and affects mostly children.

Dr. Mysheika Williams Roberts, assistant health commissioner with Columbus Public Health, said Dec. 17 there had been 1,096 cases, 954 of which were in Columbus, reported in Franklin County -- the most in 25 years.

"It's definitely a community outbreak," Roberts said. "We're seeing it in every ZIP code in Columbus."

Roberts said the outbreak began in May and has been gaining momentum since then, meaning it is not weather-related.

About 60 percent of the cases involve children 1 to 9 years old.

The shigella bacteria, which cause the disease, are highly contagious and spread after kids touch a contaminated surface -- toys, sinks or toilets, for example -- and then their mouths.

The symptoms include diarrhea and, in more severe cases, stomach cramping and a low-grade fever.

About 3 percent have required hospitalization for dehydration. Otherwise, it's a mild illness that lasts about a week.

"It doesn't slow you down," Roberts said. "The problem with that is because they don't feel ill, they go on doing their daily activities and infect other people."

Roberts said there's no conclusive reason for the outbreak, but it's particularly problematic at preschools, where kids can be infected multiple times a year.

Pediatricians or primary-care physicians diagnose the illness. Per Ohio law, daycares are required to exclude children from school until they're cleared by the health department after two negative stool samples.

Washing hands is the best defense against the spread of the disease, Roberts said. Antibiotics can help shorten the duration of the symptoms and keep the bacteria from spreading.

Meanwhile, parents need to keep their sick children home from school. Up to 35 percent of children in some daycare facilities were affected by the disease at one time.

"That's why we want to get the message out," Roberts said. "That's the challenge for the parents.

"The child looks well, feels well and they're playing -- but you can't send them to school where they'll infect other people."

Amy LeClair, owner and director of Brooksedge Day Care Center in Hilliard, said she's had no diagnosed cases of shigellosis this year.

LeClair said she makes children stay home when they exhibit signs of the illness. She also stresses regular hand-washing with students of all ages.

"The thing about being in a daycare, being in a classroom, you just make it part of their daily routine," LeClair said.

"Kids just adapt well to routine," she said, "so as long as it's something you have built in your day, several times a day, they remember."

Adults in food service, healthcare and childcare also are required to stay home if they're infected.

It's not the only health concern facing central Ohioans. Columbus Public Health also has reported an early rise in influenza.

Health officials are encouraging people to get vaccinations.