Specialists from the federal Center for Disease Control in Atlanta have joined Washington health officials in the search for the cause of an outbreak of shigellosis, an intestinal infection, in the city this year.

There have been 159 reported cases of the disease thus far this year, 151 in the city and eight in Prince George's County. Only 19 cases were reported during 1977.

Dr. Martin Levy, the city's epidemiologist, a specialist in tracking the spread of disease, said locating the source of the infection is unlikely.

Shigellosis is sometimes known as the "filth disease," because it is often associated with poor hygiene, according to Bailus Walker, administrator of the city's Environmental Health Administration.

Caused by the bacterium shigella, the disease most often strikes children from 2 to 4 years of age. Shigella can cause diarrhea, fever, cramps, and vomiting, and usually is what is called self-limiting - that is, the disease goes away with a few days without treatment.

Nonetheless, Levy urged that anyone experiencing the symptoms see a physician, particularly if the patient is a young child who might become dehydrated from the disease.

The disease is most common among children, Levy said as they get filth on their hands and then put their hands in their mouths or handle toys and objects that other children may then place in their mouths.

Almost half the cases have been reported in Southern Washington and the southern portion of far Northeast, Levy said. "There's only been one case west of Rock Creek Park," he said, and health officials are concentrating their search for the source in Southeast.

Levy said community volunteers are being used to distribute a questionnaire to the 77 Southeast residents who had or have the disease - or their parents if the patients are children - and 144 control subjects.

Levy and the CDC officers will compare the contacts and habits of the two groups answering the questionnaires in search of common patterns among the victims of the disease.

"We're going to see if there's a common source," he said, such as contaminated food or water.

"The idea is to see if there is any difference in the way the patients did things compared to the controls" who did not have the disease, he said. "Do they attend a particular nursery school or day care center? Do they swim in the same pool? Do they drink water from the same place?"