Botulism suspected in Alaska


Five villagers from southwest Alaska are in hospital after eating whale blubber poisoned by botulism toxin. Alaskan health officials say 14 people were exposed to botulism, a deadly illness that impairs the nervous system and can lead to death if not treated.

Two people from Kwigillingok, a Yup’ik village of 340 near Bethel, were searching for driftwood when they found a beached beluga whale that had died, but they didn’t believe it had decayed, Dr. Joe McLaughlin told the Anchorage Daily News. They cut off blubber from the tail and brought it home.

Nine villagers ate together Sunday afternoon, sharing the raw blubber. Five others from the same village ate the blubber Sunday or Monday. Within a day or two, some developed nausea, difficulty swallowing, double vision, dry throat or mouth, or dilated pupils. All are possible symptoms of botulism.

The bacteria that causes botulism, Clostridium botulinum, is found naturally in beach soil, ocean water and sediment — even in marine mammals and fish. Health officials say it’s possible that the beached whale had beaten up against rocks and trees, and the trauma introduced bacteria into the tissue.

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