When most of us think botulism, we remember the old tales about “dented” cans and home canning, but we only get about one case every few years from bad home canning practices. Last week, 8 inmates from a prison in Pinal County got botulism- our biggest outbreak since 2006.
Botulism is a severe illness caused by a toxin produced by bacteria in the soil. There’s no cure for botulism, but there’s an antitoxin. Botulism causes paralysis, including paralysis of lungs, and patients with botulism can be on a ventilator for a month or longer. The antitoxin only stops the progress of the illness – the body still has to repair itself which can take several months. In fact, seven of the patients from this outbreak are still in the ICU on ventilators (a couple of weeks after they got the antitoxin).
While the botulism bacteria are all around us – it takes a special anaerobic (“no air”) environment to produce the toxin. This happens most often when you seal food up in a can or jar without properly heating it to kill the bug. In this outbreak, the prisoners were brewing their own alcohol in their cells. For this batch, they put a baked potato in sealed, warm bottles and fermented it for several days- the perfect environment for producing botulism toxin. This prison brew (called pruno) is foul smelling and doesn’t look much better either. It has been a source of botulism in past outbreaks, especially when potatoes are used. A team from the county, state, and CDC is working with the prison staff and inmates to better understand how these outbreaks occur and to help support recommendations to prevent future cases- like eliminating baked potatoes from the menu.