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Infectious diseases on the rise as homeless population grows

SEATTLE -- They're diseases that you've never heard of -- Shigella and Group A Strep.

But they are spreading at alarming rates among people without homes in King County.

Group Strep A can lead to cases of flesh-eating bacteria.

Cases at Harborview Medical Center have doubled to 219, from 2016 to 2017.

At last count, there were nearly 5,500 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in King County.

When you have crowds of homeless people with little sanitation, that combination breeds infectious diseases.

It’s prompting more calls for hygiene facilities for the homeless across King County.

“I don’t have a mental problem or drug problem (so) we are the last ones to get help,” Ervin Ashley said.

Ashley had a roof over his head until a workplace accident injured his hand.

“Hard to grip, even (to get) change out of my pocket, it slips right out of my hand,” Ashley said.

He couldn’t make rent, so basic things like a sink to wash his hands is a luxury.

But when the grime gets too much to handle, he and others knock on a urban reststop.

Ashley stopped by the one in the U District.

It’s one of three  urban reststops in Seattle where the homeless can shower and do laundry.

“It feels good and lifts me up for the day I am clean,” Seth Fluker said.

Fluker is clean for now and trying to stay away from a number of infectious outbreaks plaguing the homeless population.

“We are seeing an increase in Group Strep A infections, we are seeing an increase in Shigella, which is a form of diarrhea,” Dr. Jeff Duchin with King County Health Department said.

And because Shigella is spread the same way as Hepatitis A,  Duchin is worried about a Hep A outbreak similar to what San Diego experienced where hundreds of people had to be hospitalized.

But Duchin says the general public doesn’t have to be worried; he says the risk is low for these diseases to spread.

But it’s a growing problem for the homeless.

The King County Board of Health is recommending that Seattle and King County open up more hygiene facilities and that health care providers give homeless people the Hep A vaccine.