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Experts Say Botulism Is Rare But Deadly
By Marcela Cartagena
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Botulism, one of the most deadly forms of food borne illness, is rare, but experts say it can be fatal if not treated properly.
"Botulism is a severe type of food borne illness caused by food containing a deadly toxin," said Dr. Melissa Mixon, a human nutrition specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service. "This toxin is caused by a microorganism that has the ability to form a spore resistant to heat, chemicals and lack of oxygen."
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the incidence of cases is low, but the disease is of considerable concern because of its high mortality rate. In the United States more than 110 cases are reported each year, and victims have a 65 percent chance of dying.
The microorganism that causes botulism grows in canned foods with low acid contents, such as asparagus, green beans and peas. Mixon said canned meats that have not been heated sufficiently during the canning process are often involved.
"People who do home canning should follow recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These can be obtained from their county's home economist," Mixon said. "People should boil home-canned or commercial-canned foods for about 20 minutes before eating."
Mixon added there have been some other unusual sources of botulism, including chopped garlic in oil, onions and improperly handled potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil.
In June, Reuters reported on an outbreak that happened four years ago in El Paso, Texas, when a Greek restaurant served foil-wrapped baked potatoes that apparently had been kept at room temperature for several days. Thirty people became ill and four required a ventilator. All 34 people had eaten a potato from that particular restaurant.
Mixon said symptoms of botulism include double and blurred vision, difficulty swallowing, breathing and speaking, and muscle weakness. If not properly treated quickly, the person can experience paralysis and eventually die due to paralysis of the respiratory muscles.
"Symptoms begin to show about 12 to 36 hours after consuming the contaminated product," Mixon said. "Illness can last up to six days."
People who survive this kind of food borne poisoning may suffer fatigue and shortness of breath for years, and long-term therapy may be needed for the victim to fully recover.