A dozen inmates were sickened, including three in critical condition, in a suspected botulism outbreak after they drank alcohol brewed inside a prison cell, Utah health officials said Wednesday.
Eight male prisoners who were hospitalized had exhibited botulism symptoms and preliminary tests were positive for the disease in two of the men, said Dr. Dagmar Vitek, the medical director of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department.
Botulism is a rare but serious illness that can cause paralysis. It's caused by a nerve toxin produced by bacteria and can be fatal, Vitek said.
It was not clear where the drink was made, what its ingredients were or who was responsible for its production. Prison officials believe the inmates drank the cell brew _ often referred to as "pruno" _ over the weekend, corrections department spokesman Steve Gehrke said.
Vitek said she understood the liquid is typically made with fruit, water and sugar. Bread and raw potato are other common ingredients, she said.
"It's obviously considered contraband," said Gehrke, "But right now, we're not really focused on the disciplinary aspect of this, we want to focus on the health aspect and to take steps to prevent it from happening again."
It's not uncommon for inmates to make their own alcohol, although it's a violation of prison rules, Gehrke said. Health official are testing samples of the "pruno" to pinpoint the specific bacteria that triggered the disease, which has seven different strains. Those results are not expected for several days, Vitek said.
Most of the 12 inmates became sick on Saturday, she said. Symptoms include dizziness, difficulty swallowing and muscle weakness.
"It starts with your head and then it's like a descending paralysis," Vitek said. "Then it goes to your chest, and the muscles become weak or paralyzed and that's the problem ... you cannot breathe anymore."
The last illness was reported Monday, and officials believe they have identified everyone who might be at risk, although the incubation period for the disease can be as long as eight days, Vitek said.
The eight hospitalized inmates were treated with an antitoxin obtained from the Centers for Disease Control. Three of them remained in critical condition Wednesday, while four others were being treated at the prison infirmary, Vitek said.
The disease is rare in Utah, which last reported two cases in 2003. Before that, the last known case was in 1993, Vitek said. Data from the CDC shows an average of 145 cases of botulism are annually reported in the U.S., of which 15 percent are foodborne and typically caused by improper home canning.
Recovery from the illness is typically a long process, Vitek said.
"It's usually weeks or months," she said. "Some people can have problems pretty much for the rest of their lives."
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