A jar of home-canned salmon sent an Anchorage man to the hospital with a life-threatening illness for a week this summer, according to state epidemiologists.
The man ate the salmon Aug. 19 and the next day reported feeling lightheaded. His vision and speech began to blur as his face weakened, according to an epidemiology bulletin. He went to the hospital and was immediately treated for botulism.
The illness is rare, but occurs with higher per-capita frequency in Alaska than in the Lower 48, said Eric Mooring, a disease detective with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The toxin that causes botulism can develop in improperly preserved foods, and symptoms appear within 18 to 36 hours. The disease causes muscle paralysis and can be deadly if left untreated.
In the Lower 48, the antitoxin cure is kept at CDC quarantine stations in large airports and the treatment is shipped to the impacted patient. In Alaska, the antitoxin is stored at eight hospitals across the state. Mooring said there are about a half-dozen or fewer cases of botulism in Alaska annually and there are only a few dozen throughout the entire country.
Mooring said the sooner patients receive treatment, the better off they are. The antitoxin stops symptoms from worsening but doesn’t reverse any damage that has already set in. Although the disease has the potential to be fatal, Mooring said “it’s hardly a death sentence” because only 4% of patients with confirmed cases of botulism die.
The Anchorage man told investigators the fish tasted and smelled bad. He caught the salmon around July 20 and canned it five days later, the bulletin said. The man heated the fish in a slow cooker overnight and then canned it, the bulletin said.
Mooring warned that the only way to safely can low-acid foods, like fish, is with a pressure canner.
This is the first known case of foodborne botulism in Alaska that has been traced to a home-canned food. Every other case in the state has transpired from traditionally prepared Native foods, Mooring said. In the rest of the country, the toxin generally develops in home-canned foods, he said.
The Anchorage man was treated within seven hours from when his symptoms began, the bulletin said. He was on a ventilator for about 39 hours and hospitalized for seven days, the bulletin said.
Mooring said the man was fortunate to have made a full recovery so quickly. Mooring warned others to use caution when canning foods at home and follow the United States Department of Agriculture’s home-canning guide.
“If you do can something and open it up and it smells or it’s bubbling, those are bad signs,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that previous cases of botulism in Alaska were traced back to traditionally prepared and canned Native foods. The foods were not canned but instead prepared in a way that put consumers at risk for botulism.