Warm weather raises risk of botulism in meats, Nunavik public health director advises

Spores that lead to botulism are everywhere, so transporting sea mammal meat at freezer temperature is vital says Faisca Richer

As Nunavik is experiencing warm weather, the region’s health board is raising awareness of the risk of botulism in sea mammal meat. (Photo courtesy of Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services)

By Cedric Gallant - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

It begins with spores that can be found atop all surfaces. Under the right conditions, those microscopic single-cell organisms can grow into bacteria that causes botulism.

“The spores for botulism are everywhere, even in dust,” said Faisca Richer, public health director for the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, but “the combination of circumstances makes it more common on sea mammals.”

Earlier this month, the board issued an advisory for Nunavimmiut to take steps to avoid botulism poisoning because the risk of illness increases during the warm season.

In a phone interview, Richer explained botulism and its effects on the meat of sea mammals.

She said the spores from which botulism stems can only grow into a bacteria under specific conditions — including the fermentation process found in traditional sea mammal recipes.

“When the spores are in the meat of an animal that is heated and is under anerobic conditions, without air, the spores grow into a bacteria,” she said. “And the toxin it secretes is botulism.”

Inuit Child First, Indigenous Services Canada

To avoid that, she advises keeping the meat at freezer temperature to keep the spore from growing. Even so, whether the meat is frozen or cooked the spore remains in the flesh.

“It is important that in the transportation between the hunting site and the community, the meat be at 4 C” or lower, she said. “Even if you think your surface is clean, it is very likely that there were some spores.”

It’s well known among traditional hunters that sea mammal meat at this time of year can be bad.

“This knowledge has been in the communities for millenia,” she said. “Elders that are experts in hunting sea mammals know this already. If people have questions about botulism, this should be their first source of information.”

She added, “When someone eats the meat that is contaminated by the toxin, the symptoms can occur as soon as six hours all the way up to five days [later].”

The illness attacks the nervous system, however it can be treated with prompt medical care.

“It all starts with indigestion, where the person feels stomach ache, vomiting or diarrhea,” Richer said. “Depending on the quantity consumed, it will move rapidly into the nervous system.

“It starts in the face. The person starts having trouble seeing, or seeing double.”

After that, “it will go down the mouth where people have trouble swallowing and have slurred speech.”

It can be fatal if it moves to the respiratory system. “This is where the person can stop breathing,” Richer said. “It is very important to catch the disease in its progression before it becomes fatal by injecting the antitoxin.”

The antitoxin for botulism is available in all health centres in Nunavik.

Since 1971, there have 169 cases of botulism reported in Nunavik. More recently, there have only been one or two cases a year, she said.

“In the last 30 years, we have had two deaths only,” Richer said.


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