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Villagers hospitalized after eating tainted whale

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Five people from the Southwest Alaska village of Kwigillingok were hospitalized in Anchorage and Bethel after eating possibly tainted whale blubber.

State health officials believe the whale was poisoned by deadly botulism toxin. Altogether, 14 people were exposed to botulism, which can impair the nervous system.

Two people from Kwigillingok were searching for driftwood about 25 to 30 miles west of their home near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. They found a beached beluga whale that had died, but they didn't believe it had decayed, said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, medical epidemiologist leading the investigation.

They cut off blubber from the tail and shared it with others from the village of about 340 people. The Yupik residents practice a subsistence lifestyle.

''People share their food a lot, especially when it's the first catch of any season,'' Doris Sirilo, an Anchorage resident who was raised in Kwigillingok, told the Anchorage Daily News.

Nine villagers ate together last Sunday, sharing the raw blubber. Five others from the same village ate the blubber the same day or Monday, McLaughlin said. Within a day or two, some of the villagers developed nausea or vomiting, difficulty swallowing, double vision, dry throat or mouth, or dilated pupils. Those are possible symptoms of botulism, McLaughlin said.

They went to the village health clinic or flew to the hospital in Bethel to be checked out. By Wednesday, the health care providers from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Hospital in Bethel reported suspected botulism to state health officials, said Dr. Beth Funk, medical epidemiologist.

As of Friday afternoon, three remained hospitalized in Bethel and two elders were in Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, McLaughlin said. The two flown to Anchorage need mechanical ventilators to help them breathe, McLaughlin said, but chances are good for recovery. No fatalities have been reported.

Botulism is deadly when the toxin paralyzes the diaphragm and prevents the person from breathing, Funk said.

The last reported botulism death in Alaska happened in 1991 when a Stebbins resident died after eating seal oil stored in a sealed coffee can.



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