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Doctor On Suspected Botulism Cases: "These People Are Really Ill"

Crosse Point Free Will Baptist Church
Mandie Trimble
Eighteen people became ill with suspected botulism following a potluck meal at this church in Lancaster.

Health investigators continue to try to identify the source of a botulism outbreak in Lancaster. The illness has killed one person and sickened about a dozen others. Officials have traced the outbreak to a church potluck supper.

"We’re standing behind them, and we’re there for anything we can do for them," David Williams said.

Williams, the member of nearby Lancaster church, stopped by the Cross Pointe Free Will Baptist Church. He wanted to speak to the pastor, offer condolences and help  

“We felt such a burden for this church," he said. 

But the church was locked. Its fellowship hall stood empty; chairs were neatly pushed under tables lined in rows where as many as 60 people shared and ate home cooked dishes Sunday.  

Since then, the Ohio Department of Health says 18 people fell ill with what’s suspected to be Botulism. A 54-year-old woman has died. Lab tests will confirm the disease.

Botulism is rare. Bacteria often from contaminated food causes it.  Effects include weak muscles, even paralysis, difficulty breathing.

Fairfield Medical Center Infectious Diseases Physician Andrew Murray emphasized it’s not passed from person to person.

“We wish to stress that botulism is not contagious, and it is not a threat to the community," Murray said. "This is a rare and isolated event.”

The exact source of the botulism remains a mystery.

Fairfield County Health Commissioner Doctor Mark Abei said they’ve interviewed people who were at the potluck about what kind of food was served.

Credit Mandie Trimble / WOSU
Fairfield County Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Abei discusses the suspected botulism cases that are traced to a local church potluck.

"And we've narrowed down a few things that sound suspect…We’ve commandeered the [church’s] Dumpster. And we’re collecting samples from that. And we also have a few leads where we’re going into specific homes to test some samples," Abei said. 

Doctor Murray suspects home canning.

“Chances are good that it might have been part of a salad or something, and it was probably the canned component of it that was the cause.”

Typical botulism symptoms include droopy eyes, double-vision, slurred speech and difficulty swallowing.

It’s treated with an anti-toxin.

The Centers for Disease Control flew doses of the anti-toxin to Ohio late Tuesday night. And the Ohio Department of Health distributed it to medical facilities treating patients.

Doctor Murray said if an infected patient gets the anti-toxin within four days of eating contaminated food, it could reduce recovery time.

The woman who died did not receive the anti-toxin because her death occurred before it arrived from Atlanta.

“In that case, the patient was probably just so critically ill that even if you had given them the anti-toxin immediately, it likely would have had no benefit," Murray said. 

The others being treated for suspected botulism are very ill. 

“And their care is supportive. And anytime somebody has to be on a ventilator for that long of a period of time, it’s possible they could do badly," Murray noted. 

The Ohio Department of Health says they are monitoring 21 additional people for symptoms.

Back outside Cross Pointe Free Will Baptist Church, neighboring church member David Williams, said he hopes fear doesn’t take over people.

“Potluck is a traditional thing in church. You know Jesus, He always made it a point to feed people. We don’t ever want that to be where we can’t come over a meal and have that fear. And just kind of try to break that off," he said. “And praying for them, that’s for sure.”