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Rare Paralytic Illness Causes Outbreak in California, Claims One Life

MAY 25, 2017 | KRISTI ROSA
An outbreak of a rare but serious paralytic illness is infecting several individuals in Sacramento, California.

The illness in question? Botulism, an illness “caused by the nerve toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.”

Sacramento County Public Health has teamed up with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the Sacramento County Department of Environmental Management to investigate the source of food-borne botulism that has landed several individuals in the hospital.

The CDPH reported that, as of May 22, 2017, there is a total of 10 cases associated with this outbreak, and 1 individual has died.

Officials have linked the outbreak back to food sold by Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station in Walnut Grove, located in Sacramento County. In fact, the CDPH just confirmed that the gas station’s nacho cheese “tested positive for the toxin that causes botulism.” Furthermore, the toxin identified in the cheese sauce is the same toxin that has been identified in the infected patients.

Therefore, on May 5, 2017, the Sacramento County Department of Environmental Management halted “the sale of prepared food” at the gas station. However, according to CNN, on May 8, 2017 it was given the green light to reopen “and sell prepackaged food items only…after a California Department of Health officer seized four bags of cheese sauce.”

CDPH is helping local public health depts investigate an outbreak of foodborne botulism. We believe there is no ongoing risk to the public.

— CA Public Health (@CAPublicHealth) May 20, 2017

The CDPH reported that, “the toxin that causes botulism can be found in foods that are not properly processed or stored.” They also note that the fact that the toxin is both odorless and colorless makes it impossible to know if any food product is contaminated.

Therefore, it is important to be aware of the “classic symptoms” associated with botulism, which could present anywhere from 18 to 36 hours after consuming contaminated food. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these can include any of the following:
  • Double vision
  • Blurred vision
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscle weakness
Health officials warn anyone who has eaten prepared food, “particularly nacho cheese sauce,” from the gas station between April 23, 2017 and May 5, 2017 to contact their healthcare providers immediately should they start presenting with any associated symptoms.

As the weather gets warmer, here are some preventive steps to keep in mind when manning the grill or cooking in the kitchen, according to the CDPH:
  • Make sure all your food products are cooked to the right temperatures.
  • Wash your hands frequently and adequately; clean surfaces where you’re preparing your food often.
  • Remember to refrigerate your food properly; don’t let food sit out for prolonged periods of time.
  • Separate any raw meets from other foods you are preparing.
“While there are still unanswered questions about this outbreak, these tragic illnesses are important reminders to be vigilant about food safety,” said Dr. Karen Smith, CDPH Director and State Public Health Officer in the press release. “As we head into the summer barbeque season, both indoor and outdoor chefs need to be on guard against all foodborne illnesses.”
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