Almost a detective story, or How humanity became acquainted with botulism

Almost a detective story, or How humanity became acquainted with botulism

Categories: Health and Medicine | History

Botulism is an acute infectious-toxic disease caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum and the toxic product of its vital activity. This is a deadly disease that still takes lives all over the world. To avoid becoming a victim of infection, you need to know how it enters the body and what symptoms accompany it.

Almost a detective story, or How humanity became acquainted with botulism

The causative agent of botulism has always lived next to humans. But it was discovered only at the end of the 19th century. On December 14, 1895, 87-year-old Antoine Creter, the leader of a local orchestra, was buried in the Belgian village of Elsel. 34 musicians from the Creter band, as well as neighbors, relatives and friends of the deceased, came to the funeral at the Le Rustic restaurant.

Almost a detective story, or How humanity became acquainted with botulism

There was plenty of alcohol and excellent food on the table. But most of all those present leaned on the ham, which two weeks ago was removed from the chimney, where it had been smoked for 50 days. The feast ended well after midnight and the guests went home. And in the morning, two local doctors were called to 20 houses at once.

All patients complained of similar symptoms - diarrhea and vomiting. Some also experienced painful urination. A little later, all the patients began to complain about another problem - they saw double vision, and their upper eyelids did not rise. Several sick people also suffered from thirst. But they could not drink, because after the first sip, suffocation began and the liquid poured out through the nose.

Almost a detective story, or How humanity became acquainted with botulism

Obviously, the guests were poisoned by something at the wake, but the picture of the disease was very strange. Doctors could do nothing to help, and in just a week, three patients died a painful death. Detectives arrived from the city in Elsel. They interviewed local residents and the concierge of the town hall told them that a mass murder had been committed. Allegedly, one of the numerous heirs of the deceased, who decided to eliminate competitors, is to blame for everything.

But the investigators treated their work professionally and did not rely on rumors. They called microbiologist Emil van Ermengem from Ghent, a specialist in intestinal infections. The professor examined samples of ham, which all the sick people ate. He also performed autopsies on the deceased and examined their spleen and liver under a microscope.

Almost a detective story, or How humanity became acquainted with botulism

Van Ermengem discovered the anaerobic (able to live without air) bacteria Clostridium botulinum. Their waste products were incredibly toxic. A rabbit died after being injected with just 0.0005 milligrams of this toxin. The scientist found that those who ate more than 200 grams of ham died. The rest slowly began to recover, but it took about six months to come to their senses.

The heirs of the late Antoine Creter were completely acquitted. The scientist established the complete picture of the poisoning. Pork meat was salted in barrels before smoking. Its pieces were laid in layers and filled with a small amount of salt water. It only covered the lower pieces and it was in them, without access to oxygen, that deadly bacteria developed.

Few people know, but spoiled ham gave the world a popular literary hero. The story of the poisoning hit the newspapers and the writer Agatha Christie learned about it. She wrote the story “A Box of Chocolates”, the main character of which was the detective Hercule Poirot. The prototype of the brilliant detective was Dr. Emil van Ermengem.

Almost a detective story, or How humanity became acquainted with botulism

Agatha Christie made Poirot's birthplace the very village of Elsel in which the mass poisoning occurred. The hero turned out to be so successful that he became the main character in the writer’s works. He became famous all over the world, just like his British counterpart Sherlock Holmes, invented by Conan Doyle.

“Everything is poison, everything is medicine. Both are determined by the dose” - many people know this statement of the great physician and alchemist of the Middle Ages Paracelsus. It fits perfectly with botulism. In the 20th century, the military decided to use the deadly poisonous botulinum toxin. Its use as a biological weapon was considered promising. Scientists have calculated that only 4 kg of toxin is needed to destroy all of humanity. The military conducted experiments on monkeys and they gave unexpected results.

Almost a detective story, or How humanity became acquainted with botulism

At a research center in Camp Detrick, Maryland, USA, a monkey with a pronounced tic became the test subject. Botulinum toxin injections cured her. It turned out that spasms and strabismus could be treated with carefully selected doses of poison. It also has properties to smooth out wrinkles, as it paralyzes the facial muscles. The drug was called “Botox” and is now used in “beauty injections” all over the world.

Nowadays, the bacterium Clostridium botulinum and its effect on the body have been studied very well. It is a mistake to think that you can only get sick by eating contaminated foods. There are three forms of botulism:

Almost a detective story, or How humanity became acquainted with botulism

But 99 percent of all cases of botulism are associated with food. It should be remembered that there is no such thing as a “mild form” of botulism and each case of the disease can be fatal.

Signs of foodborne botulism appear between 12 and 36 hours after the toxin enters the body. But in some cases, the onset of the disease is not accompanied by severe symptoms and serious problems can begin even after a few days. It all depends on the condition of the body and the amount of bacteria taken with food. Symptoms of the disease are:

Almost a detective story, or How humanity became acquainted with botulism

If symptoms of botulism appear, you should seek medical help immediately. Time is working against the patient, and the condition will only get worse. Successful treatment is possible only with timely assistance.

Prevention of botulism is very simple. To avoid becoming a victim of an insidious infection, you need to avoid consuming questionable products. These include home-made dried, salted and smoked fish, home-made canned meat, fish, mushrooms and vegetables.

Almost a detective story, or How humanity became acquainted with botulism

Unfortunately, there are known cases of botulism infection through products purchased in stores. Typically, the bacterium develops in canned food and fish that have expired. Also at risk are products that were stored and transported improperly.

To prevent infection through the wound, you need to treat them in a timely manner. If contaminants and especially soil get into the wounds, you should contact a medical facility. Finally, it is worth saying that a vaccine against botulism exists, but it is used very rarely. Its effectiveness is questionable, and in addition, it has a number of dangerous side effects.

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