In addition to Galindo, nine other people have been hospitalized after consuming cheese from the gas station in Walnut Creek, California. Health officials have traced the illnesses to an outbreak of botulism, a rare but serious foodborne illness.
This week, the California Department of Public Health confirmed that the cheese from the gas station tested positive for botulism, and stated that health officials removed the contaminated batches of cheese on May 5.
According to the CDC, foodborne botulism is caused by eating foods that are contaminated with botulinum toxin. Most cases of botulism are related to homemade foods that were improperly canned, preserved, or fermented. Far less commonly, botulism can be traced to store-bought foods, as we saw in the 2007 outbreak related to canned hot dog chili sauce.
Overall, though, it's important to remember that botulism is extremely rare (the CDC estimates that there are about 20 cases of it among adults per year in the U.S.). But it is also a potentially severe illness that causes muscle paralysis. Other symptoms of botulism include slurred speech, blurred vision, and difficulty swallowing. Treatment usually involves administration of an antitoxin, the Mayo Clinic explains, which can prevent further complications but cannot undo damage that's already been done. That means getting treated ASAP is crucial. According to the CDC, about 5% of botulism cases are fatal.
The current outbreak first drew national attention earlier this month, when it was reported that a woman was paralyzed after consuming the cheese. The Sacramento Bee reports that Lavinia Kelly became ill in April, and has since been in the hospital, where her family says she's unable to even open her eyelids. Galindo had been put on a ventilator and was in a coma before he died, according to a GoFundMe page set up by his family.
"While there are still unanswered questions about this outbreak, these tragic illnesses are important reminders to be vigilant about food safety," said Karen Smith, the health department's director and state public health officer, in a press release. "As we head into the summer barbecue season, both indoor and outdoor chefs need to be on guard against all foodborne illnesses."
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