To prepare a field site for evaluating preventive interventions against endemic shigellosis, the authors followed prospectively a cohort of 360 children (90 each of children aged 0-11, 12-23, 24-35, and 36-47 months) in Santa Julia, a low socioeconomic area in Santiago, Chile, from November 1986 through April 1989 with twice weekly household visits for diarrheal disease; infants replaced children who reached 60 months of age. Coprocultures on 2 consecutive days from children with diarrhea and from age-matched controls within the cohort were cultured for Shigella. Bacteriologic surveillance was also maintained in the health center and children's hospital serving Santa Julia. In this community, where all households had access to potable water (68% inside) and all but 3% had access to a toilet, but where there was marked crowding, the overall incidence of diarrheal disease in the cohort was low (2.26 episodes/12 child months of observation in children aged 0-11 months and 2.09 in those aged 12-23 months), yet Shigella infections were common. Shigella accounted for 10% of diarrheal episodes in the cohort (vs. 3.2% isolation rate in controls, p less than 0.0001). The incidence of shigellosis in children aged 12-47 months was 0.16 cases per 12 child months of observation; in the first 5 years of life, a child had a 67% chance of experiencing shigellosis. Shigella sonnei, Shigella flexneri 2a, and S. flexneri 6 caused greater than 79% of the infections. Shigella occurred more often in hospitalized cases of diarrhea than in age-matched cases detected in the health center or by household surveillance (p less than 0.0001). An initial episode of Shigella diarrhea did not diminish overall the risk of subsequent shigellosis but did confer 72% protection (p = 0.05) against illness due to the homologous serotype. The high rate of both S. sonnei and S. flexneri shigellosis in a population with a low background rate of diarrhea makes Santa Julia an appropriate site for assessing the efficacy and effectiveness of measures to reduce Shigella infections.