5 Ill After Eating Fermented Seal Flipper

First three, and now five, people have fallen ill or been taken under medical observation after two separate meals of fermented seal flipper in the Seward Peninsula community of Koyuk have been linked to the toxic bacteria that causes botulism.

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According to state Department of Epidemiology officials, the first person fell ill after sharing a meal with six others in Koyuk last Friday [May 4]. That patient had mild symptoms—dry mouth and dizziness—and sought medical help in Nome. No one else from the meal felt sick—a stroke of luck that medical epidemiologist Dr. Michael Cooper says makes botulism so difficult to control.

“The toxin distributes itself very unevenly in the food, whether its seal oil, seal flipper, beaver tail, whatever. There may be a part of that meal that has a very high concentration, that will kill you or make you very sick, and there may be a part of that meal that has no toxin.”

The first patient received botulism anti-toxin at Nome’s Norton Sound hospital, and Dr. Cooper says health officials reached out to ensure no more of the tainted seal was eaten. But just five days later, a another tainted flipper was eaten.

“It was the same preparers involved with both meals. Two separate meals, two separate seals, prepared separately.”

That second meal was shared by four people—and left one person “severely ill” and led to three others being taken under medical evaluation. In all, three people—one from the first meal, and two from the second—were given the anti-toxin for botulism.

“The two others, upon further questioning, they didn’t have the correct symptoms, and on exam they had a normal exam, so they were deemed not to have botulism.”*

Leftovers from the second meal tested positive for the botulinum bacteria—the toxic spores of which cause botulism.

Epidemiologists says those who ate the first meal have finished a ten-day observation period; those from the second meal remain under observation.

Even when prepared carefully and using traditional practices, fermented foods can pose a risk. A batch of botulism-tainted seal oil sickened dozens of people in December in the Bristol Bay region, and early last year, one man died after eating a meal of fermented fish heads.

Health officials are urging residents in Koyuk—and anywhere else where fermented foods are consumed—to be on the lookout for symptoms of the disease, which includes shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, dry mouth and blurry vision.

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Matthew Smith is a reporter at KNOM in Nome.

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