Five people become sick with trichinosis after eating bear meat

Posted: Friday, November 24, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Five people became seriously ill this year after eating meat from two Alaska bears, more than doubling the cases of trichinosis reported nationwide, Alaska health officials said.

The first case involved a 34-year-old Anchorage man who on Aug. 3 became sick after frying and eating meat from a black bear killed in June near Prince William Sound.

A state lab analyzed the meat and found it contained larvae of the Trichinella worm.

In the second case, four hunters from Wisconsin became ill after frying meat from a black bear they killed Aug. 13 near Bethel, where they had gone to hunt caribou. That bear also contained Trichinella larvae.

Hunters in both cases said they undercooked the meat. The Wisconsin hunters said strong winds interfered with the operation of their camp stove. The Anchorage man said he fried the meat rapidly.

Cases of trichinosis from eating bear and walrus meat in Alaska probably are very underreported, said epidemiologist Louisa Castrodale, who headed the investigation for the state Division of Public Health. The last case reported to the state was in 1994.

But the Alaska Department of Fish and Game knows from blood tests that up to 90 percent of bears in some areas of Alaska are infected.

''It is prudent to assume that all bears in Alaska are infected,'' state epidemiologists said in a news release.

Most people who eat infected meat mistake the symptoms that show up weeks or months later as a bad case of the flu. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, fever, swollen eyes, aching joints and muscle pains.

When a person eats infected meat, the acids in the stomach dissolve the cyst covering, releasing the worms, which then pass into the small intestine, where they mature and mate. The females lay eggs that grow into worms and travel through arteries to muscle, where they curl into a ball. It is treatable with drugs early on when in the small intestine.

Freezing infected pork will kill the larvae, but the Trichinella worm found in Alaska is particularly hardy. It has adapted to the Arctic cold so freezing the meat won't kill it, Castrodale said.

Sixteen people became ill in Alaska in 1985 after eating meat from an infected grizzly. The meat, which had been frozen for three weeks, was cut into bite-sized pieces and cooked in a soup for 1 to 2 hours.

To be safe, infected meat must be cooked to reach an internal temperature of at least 170 degrees, she said.

Mary Pete, subsistence director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said illness from eating infected meat is a persistent problem in the villages. She hears about a case every couple of years.

''I know there is a problem, especially with walrus,'' she said.

The good thing is that news travels fast in villages if people are getting sick from eating an infected animal, she said.

Many Alaskans know through common knowledge to be wary of bear meat, but that's not the case with hunters from the Lower 48 who bring meat home and serve it as a novelty, Castrodale said.

''The biggest thing is cook your meat,'' she said. ''You don't want anything that looks like raw meat.''

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