CANADA – A study has revealed that foodborne botulism in Canadian Indigenous communities significantly decreased during 2006–2021.

Botulism, a rare and potentially deadly foodborne illness, has been under the microscope in Canada for the past 15 years.

According to a recent article in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Canada has seen a total of 55 laboratory-confirmed outbreaks of foodborne botulism between 2006 and 2021.

This might sound alarming, but there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

To unravel the mystery behind botulism’s presence in the Great White North, researchers delved into two key laboratory databases. Health Canada’s Botulism Reference Service (BRS) and the British Columbia Center for Disease Control’s (BCCDC’s) Public Health Laboratory provided the critical data.

BRS covers cases from all provinces and territories, while BCCDC’s lab services British Columbia and the Yukon Territory.

During this 15-year period, the distribution of botulism cases was anything but uniform. Quebec led the pack with 31 cases, followed by Ontario with 15, and Alberta with six.

Northern regions like Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and the Yukon saw their share, while the western province of British Columbia accounted for just three cases.

Moreover, foodborne botulism in Indigenous communities, historically more susceptible to the disease, accounted for a significant chunk of cases but saw a dramatic decline from 85 percent during 1990–2005 to just 46 percent in recent years.

Traditional foods in focus

One might think that the consumption of traditional Indigenous foods, often linked to botulism, decreased during this period. Surprisingly, it did not.

These foods made up around 40 percent of all meat and fish consumed in Canada’s northern regions from 2004 to 2017.

The drop in botulism cases among Indigenous communities is a testament to effective risk communication and reduction strategies.

Culprit serotypes

Delving deeper into the microbiological details, the researchers found that C. botulinum serotype E was the primary culprit, responsible for 52 percent of all cases in Canada during the study period. Other serotypes included 16 cases of type A, 11 cases of type B, and two cases of type F.

Botulism is no picnic. Most patients involved in these outbreaks experienced severe illness, leading to hospitalization for 78 percent of them.

A whopping 70 percent required mechanical ventilation. Sadly, 14 percent of cases resulted in death. Type A infections were associated with significantly longer hospital stays than types B or E.

Call for improved reporting

Despite these findings, the researchers issued a cautionary note. They suspect that botulism cases may be underreported due to misdiagnosis or inadequate diagnostic coding.

In some cases, valuable food history and sample collection were delayed, leading to the disposal of potentially crucial evidence.

The researchers emphasize the need for enhanced communication between hospitals, diagnostic labs, and public health officials to ensure that a comprehensive investigation is carried out for each laboratory-confirmed botulism case.

Botulism in Canada is not just a statistical curiosity. It’s a story of resilience in Indigenous communities, a tale of changing serotypes, and a reminder that effective communication can save lives.

As the nation looks forward, it’s clear that the fight against botulism requires not only scientific scrutiny but also a renewed commitment to better reporting and understanding of this rare but dangerous disease.

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