Alaska News

Botulism suspected in death, illnesses in Western Alaska

State health officials are investigating a cluster of possible botulism cases in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta that began with a shared meal of fermented fish heads, an epidemiologist said Monday.

Of four people who ate together last week, one died and two others fell ill, said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist in the Alaska Division of Public Health.

Alaska State Troopers on Sunday evening identified the man who died as Allen Nook, 59, of Lower Kalskag, a village of about 300 people on the Kuskokwim River 350 miles west of Anchorage. He ate the fish Wednesday and complained of seeing double and feeling ill, according to the troopers report.

Nook was found dead in his home Friday. His body was flown to Anchorage for an autopsy by the state medical examiner.

Health officials are testing samples of the food as well as clinical samples from the people who may have been infected to look for signs of the botulinum toxin. Testing takes about a week, Castrodale said.

Botulism is a life-threatening disease and a public health emergency. The bacteria can incubate in some traditional Alaska Native foods including fermented "stink heads," which some in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region consider a delicacy but others stay away from. The traditional way of aging the fish in grass or straw has given way to glass or plastic containers that can increase the risk, according to a 2011 state report, "Botulism in Alaska."

If officials confirm that Nook died from botulism, it will be first Alaska death from the bacteria since 2007, Castrodale said.

Health care providers are urged to immediately report suspected cases to ensure quick treatment and to stop others from eating suspect food. People may suffer from nausea, diarrhea, blurred vision, skeletal muscular weakness and partial paralysis.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.