Alaska nursing home seeks to make safer seal oil for residents

My botulism fears have been well detailed. I don’t mess with it; paralysis and the long term effects are enough to convince me to take risk management steps like avoiding risky foods.

Like seal oil.

A 2014 botulism outbreak linked to seal oil led to over 25 illnesses in Alaska. There was another outbreak in 1997. There have been others too.garlic-scapes-2

But the food has a lot of cultural importance – and a according to the Daily Mail, nursing home is working with bot experts to process the oil, often home made and donated, safely.

An Alaskan Native organization asked for permission to serve its nursing home residents nutrient-rich seal oil.

Regulators are working with the Kotzebue-based Maniilaq Association to possibly serve the seal oil, a traditional staple that’s banned in public settings because of its high risk for botulism if not properly processed.

Lorinda Lhotka with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said the agency would grant an exemption to the Kotzebue-based Maniilaq Association if it can demonstrate a safe method for rendering the oil, which can taste like a heavy, if slightly fishy, olive oil when fresh.

It’s used like a dipping sauce in Native households across the state.

‘We know that it’s a really healthy food, but there’s also some hazards associated with it if it’s not prepared safely,’ said Lhotka, a member of an unofficial task force looking at ways to make seal oil legally available.

Alaska consistently ranks among the highest in the nation for rates of foodborne botulism. The numbers vary widely, but generally range between zero and as many as 15 people affected each year.

Deaths, however, are rare, occurring in Alaska only twice in the last 10 years, according to Louisa Castrodale, a state epidemiologist.

Maniilaq, a regional tribal health care nonprofit based in Kotzebue, hopes it can add seal oil to the list of traditional foods that can legally be donated to facilities such as its Kotzebue nursing home, which serves elderly Inupiat Eskimos.

For its seal oil quest, Maniilaq has teamed up with University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers, as well as University of Wisconsin botulism expert Eric Johnson, to assess the oil rendering process at its new Kotzebue processing plant for traditional foods.



Botulism-in-seal-oil outbreak under control, says Alaska

The outbreak of botulism across a few Southwest Alaska communities from a batch of seal oil appears to be contained, but not all of those who consumed some of the product are out of the woods just yet.

Ringed_seal_1_2000-08-13Dr. Michael Cooper is the Infections Disease Program Manager with the state’s Public Health Department. He says medical officials are still keeping an eye on just over a handful of the original 25 who were known to eaten some of the contaminated oil:

“We’re down to seven or eight people who are still being monitored, one until December 31, one until January 1, and five until January 2. They’re asymptomatic, and we’re just watching them, checking in daily, to see if they develop symptoms,” said Dr. Cooper.

Dr. Cooper said the batch of contaminated seal oil has been accounted for and destroyed.

25 sick: Botulism in seal oil in Southwest Alaska

 A botulism outbreak in Bristol Bay communities is being monitored by state and local health officials, according to the state Department of Epidemiology, which said Wednesday that more than 25 people have so far been linked to a batch of contaminated seal oil produced in the village of Twin Hills.

garlic-scapes-2Alaska Dispatch News reports that several people have been hospitalized, some are being monitored and health officials are still trying to contact others.

The first botulism cases were reported Friday after two people were flown from the village of Quinhagak to Bethel for care. The two were later taken by medevac to Anchorage and remained on respiratory support Wednesday, reportedly unable to breathe on their own, according to a state official monitoring the outbreak.

Three others from Quinhagak were treated for symptoms of botulism, and others in Twin Hills and Dillingham have reported symptoms or are being monitored. One child has also shown symptoms of the disease, which can be fatal, according to Dr. Michael Cooper, the infectious disease program manager at the Department of Epidemiology.

“This is a very concerning outbreak,” said Cooper. “This is one of the largest clusters of botulism we’ve ever seen.”

An investigation linked the illnesses to a batch of seal oil produced in Twin Hills, and Cooper said testing conducted at a state lab revealed the oil was particularly toxic.

“When it was tested, it came back at the highest level the lab instrument can measure for botulinum toxin,” he said Wednesday.

The testing was completed Tuesday, and Wednesday morning, the state dispatched a second public health nurse from Anchorage to continue the investigation out of Dillingham.

“In an odd twist to this case, after we showed preliminary test results to the family who produced the oil, they sort of refused to stop eating or serving it,” said Cooper.