MADAWASKA – A Madawaska man and his 13-year-old son were both in critical condition Thursday at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, suffering from suspected food-borne botulism poisoning.
The two cases are the first in Maine in at least 20 years, according to state health officials.
David Pelletier and his son Joshua, 13, have been at EMMC since Tuesday after being hospitalized on Monday at Northern Maine Medical Center at Fort Kent.
The father and son became ill on Sunday, according to Pelletier’s wife, Elaine Pelletier. Both of them are in the intensive care unit at EMMC, and both are connected to ventilators to assist their breathing. Their recovery, she said, could take weeks or even months.
“They are both in critical condition, in intensive care, but they are getting a bit better, David more than Josh,” a very tired Elaine Pelletier said. “Dave can move his arms and legs a bit, more than Josh. They both need help to breathe because their muscles are paralyzed.
“It’s going to be a very long haul for them,” she said. “It will be months, and one doctor said worst-case scenario is up to seven months’ recovery.”
Health officials suspect that the poisoning was the result of a food item consumed at the Pelletier home.
Food-borne botulism is caused by spores of bacteria in canned foods, mostly home-canned foods, according to Geoff Beckett, chief of the infectious disease epidemiology section of the Maine Bureau of Health.
Specimens of food ingested by the two are being tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. Results won’t be known until next week.
Maine health officials stressed Thursday that no other family members were sick. The two cases are suspected to be isolated, and there are no other cases or suspected cases of food-borne botulism in Maine or New Brunswick.
The poisoning is usually serious, but not fatal. The bacteria create a toxin that interferes with nerve transmission, causing paralysis and difficulty with breathing and swallowing. People often need support with respiration for days or weeks, Beckett said.
“The cause of this is still a mystery,” Elaine Pelletier said. “We were fortunate that the doctors at Fort Kent were very quick to diagnose this.
“They did an excellent job, everyone involved did,” she said. “Even the doctors here in Bangor said they did everything right.”
David Pelletier is a laborer at Fraser Papers Inc. at Madawaska, and Joshua attends the Madawaska Middle School. The couple have another son, Travis, 8.
State health officials were notified of the two cases on Tuesday. Samples of food ingested by the two over a period of 10 days were tested.
State inspectors checked a couple of restaurants in the area where the two had eaten in the days before they became sick and did not find anything related to the poisoning. Beckett said the cases were confined to a single household, and there is nothing to suggest it involves any commercially prepared food or connection to any restaurant.
“We don’t know the specific foods at this time, but specimens of what was eaten over a period of days have been taken,” Beckett said. “Everything is being considered.
“It appears to be an item consumed at home,” the health official said. “It is still a mystery as to the exact food.”
Beckett said the poisoning is caused by a toxin produced by spores of bacteria that contaminate foods which are kept in an air-free environment, such as home-canned items. The bacteria involved, Clostridium botulinum, is commonly found in soil and grows best in low- or no-oxygen conditions. Only 25 cases are reported in the United States each year. A great majority of the cases are due to consumption of home-canned foods. Beckett said it has been very uncommon over last 30 years to see canned commercial products causing botulism illnesses.
Beckett said commercially canned food preparation makes botulism extremely unlikely. Home canning, which is done in less controlled environments, can result in the production of botulism.
Other than home-canned food, other foods often suspected in food-borne botulism are home-prepared sausage, especially with meat from game animals, certain vegetables, garlic stored in oil, and some types of smoked fish, Beckett said
“Most cases are associated with home-canned products,” he stressed.
Symptoms of food-borne botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth and muscle weakness. If untreated, the symptoms can progress to paralysis of the arms, legs, trunk and respiratory muscles. Paralysis can affect the face and upper body, neck, chest and diaphragm. The symptoms usually appear within 18 to 36 hours of eating contaminated food, but they can appear as early as six hours, or as late as 10 days.
Victims may be on breathing machines for weeks. After several weeks, the paralysis slowly lessens. Patients may have shortness of breath and fatigue for years. Long-term therapy is usually needed to aid recovery, Beckett explained.
Botulism can result in death due to respiratory failure. The rate of death, in the last 50 years, has fallen from 50 percent to 8 percent.