Trichinella parasite still thrives even after fermenting, freezing

Arctic Bay man dies from eating infected walrus meat

By JANE GEORGE

A nasty parasite called trichinella recently caused the death of a respected Arctic Bay man.

Jayko Tunraq, 61, a longtime water and sewage truck driver for the hamlet, fell ill after he had eaten fermented walrus meat infected with trichinella worms.

More than 250 mourners crowded into the Inuujaq School gym during the Nov. 17 funeral for Tunraq.

Tunraq, who fell ill while hunting out on the land, died of complications due to trichinosis, the disease caused by trichinella worms.

Eating undercooked meat from bears or walrus, which may contain the worm eggs, can lead to trichinosis.

Once eaten, trichinella worm eggs pass into the intestine where they grow and reproduce. The young worms then spread throughout the body in the blood stream.

The favorite sites of the worms include the jaw muscle, diaphragm muscle, bicep muscle, the muscle of the buttock and the back of the leg, where they damage muscle tissues.

Fermenting or freezing raw walrus meat can't kill trichinella because meat has to be cooked thoroughly to kill the worms. In fact, the Arctic species of trichinella is resistant to temperatures as low as -20 C .

There is a skin test to see if you have been exposed to trichinella worms. But it takes six weeks or so before the test produces a positive reaction.

So if you are at a very early stage of infection, shortly after eating infected meat, you will start to feel sick, but this test will not be positive.

The first symptoms of trichinosis include diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, fever, and abdominal discomfort one to two days after eating the infected meat. Headaches, fevers, chills, cough, eye swelling, aching joints and muscle pains, itchy skin, diarrhea, or constipation follow the first symptoms, about two to eight weeks after eating the meat.

You may start to have trouble with your coordination, and have heart and breathing problems.

In severe cases, death can occur.

Most symptoms disappear within a few months. Often, mild cases of trichinosis – also called trichinellosis – are never diagnosed because the symptoms resemble the flu.

Medication can alleviate many of the symptoms and prevent the disease from worsening.

Nunavut and Nunavik have seen many outbreaks of trichinosis – in Salluit in 1987, when 42 people fell ill; in 1999, when 34 in Qikiqtarjuaq became infected; in 2005, when 12 hunters sickened in Kangiqsualujjuaq after eating barbequed black bear meat, and in 2006 when two fell ill with trichinosis in Kuujjuaq and 50 in Cape Dorset.

After a 2002 outbreak of 16 trichinosis cases in Repulse Bay, the Nunavut health department launched a walrus-meat testing pilot program, in an effort to cut down on the number of trichinosis cases in the territory.

But no one was available from Nunavut's health department before the Nunatsiaq News deadline this week to comment on the recent death in Arctic Bay or discuss what walrus-meat testing methods are now currently in use.

Meanwhile, Nunavik developed an aggressive walrus-meat test program following the Salluit outbreak in 1987.

Thanks to the Nunavik Research Centre's trichinosis infection prevention program, which started in 1992, hunters now send in the walrus tongue for laboratory tests. The tests detect parasite infestation before any of the meat is distributed and eaten.

Over the years, on request, the Nunavik Research Centre has tested walrus tongues coming from Nunavut, said Manon Simard, a wildlife parasitologist at the Nunavik Research Centre.

"We have tested five walrus tongues from Nunavut this year. Two from Iqaluit and three from Repulse Bay hunters. All walrus from Iqaluit hunters were infected and two out of three walrus from Repulse Bay hunters were infected," Simard said.

In 2008, the centre tested 61 walrus from Nunavik hunters and all were negative.

There has been no trichinosis epidemic outbreak caused by walrus harvested by Nunavik hunters since 2000, Simard said.

The walrus-meat testing program also includes a training session for hunters and a pamphlet and video on prevention for communities.

The testing program means walrus meat is tagged on site and held until clearance. The lab produces a separate analysis for each walrus before the results are sent back to the communities and the walrus meat is distributed.

To limit the chances of ending up with an infected walrus, many Nunavik hunters avoid old male walruses, which have a higher rate of infection.

Trichinella affects about four in 100 walrus in Nunavik.

Up to 60 per cent of polar bears in Nunavik may be infected with trichinella, researchers say, but traditionally polar bear meat is always fully cooked before eating.

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