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12 prison inmates contract botulism through homemade brew

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 5 2011 12:58 p.m. MDT

UTAH STATE PRISON — A dozen inmates at the Utah State Prison recently became sick with botulism after consuming homemade alcohol brewed inside a cell, according to the Salt Lake Valley Health Department.

Eight of those inmates were receiving treatment Wednesday at local hospitals while four were under observation at the prison. Of the eight hospitalized, health officials say three are in critical conditions with symptoms ranging from muscle problems to partial paralysis.

"The road to recovery is long," Dr. Dagmar Vitek, medical director of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, said of typical botulism cases.

In this incident, those most critically injured could take weeks or months to recover, and there was no way of telling yet whether they will suffer any permanent effects.

Utah Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said the homemade brew was made by at least one inmate who was hoarding food from the meal trays served to him in his cell. The way the food was being stored was apparently the cause of the problem, he said.

Though it isn't something that happens often, Gehrke said the department is aware that cell-block brewing is something that exists. It's a process that's typically referred to as  "prison wine" or "toilet wine." Most recipes include a mixture of leftover fruit, sugar, ketchup and sometimes moldy bread or a potato.

In this case, Vitek said the inmates were drinking a concoction called "pruno," a mixture of fruit, sugar, water and bread or a potato. Vegetables are the most common source of the food-borne toxin, she said.

Although further tests would have to be conducted to positively confirm the inmates were suffering from botulism, Vitek said the department was sure it was more than likely the case.

The first affected inmates came down with symptoms on Sunday, Gehrke said. Over the next couple of days, inmates either voluntarily came forward admitting they had consumed the potent cocktail or were discovered after showing symptoms.

For security reasons, Gehrke said the prison could not publicly release Wednesday the identity of the inmates or the part of the prison where they were housed. There were no lockdowns Wednesday because of the incident and all of those who drank the brew are believed to have now been identified.

Symptoms of food-borne botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth and muscle weakness, according to the health department.

The problem was discovered after an inmate went to the prison infirmary and reported having many of those symptoms, Vitek said. The infirmary recognized it had a problem possibly bigger than it was equipped to handle and contacted the health department, she said.

Botulism patients often experience "descending paralysis," Vitek said. They start with drooping eyes, followed by slurred speech and muscle problems with the shoulders. The disease eventual works its way down to the chest.

"Quantity doesn't matter," Vitek said of the amount of the home brew inmates would have had to drink to become sick. It usually takes between six hours to several days for symptoms to appear.

Botulism can be fatal if not treated. But because the U.S. has anti-toxins to treat it, more than half of patients who contract the rare disease are saved. In Utah, only 5 percent to 10 percent of botulism cases are fatal, Vitek said. But the last reported case of botulism in Utah was in 2003 and the time before that 1993.

With the recipe the inmates were using, they would have needed a heater and pressure cooker to make their drinks safe, health officials said, neither of which are found in the prison cells.

Only those who drank the homemade brew would get sick. Botulism is not spread just through contact. Because this incident was so isolated, Vitek said there was no health risk to the general public.

While the material is considered contraband, Gehrke said the department's emphasis at this time was making sure inmates who may have consumed the bad brew come forward and get the treatment they need.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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