Homemade Jailhouse Wine Leads to Botulism Outbreak

Dangerous bacteria releases life-threatening nerve toxin.

December 17, 2013, 11:26 AM

Dec. 17, 2013— -- A batch of homemade jailhouse wine sickened eight inmates in Utah after it was tainted with Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that leads to a botulism infection, according to a new report.

The wine, also called “pruno,” was tainted by the dangerous bacteria that was on the skin of a baked potato, authorities said. The potato was added to the homemade booze by the inmate as an “experiment.”

According to a case study published this month in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, eight inmates from a Utah jail came into the emergency room complaining of weakness in the muscles in their head. Not only did they have trouble speaking, some had double vision or other sight problems as their eye muscles weakened, according to the report.

Dr. Megan Fix, a lead author of the study and an assistant professor of surgery at the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of Utah Hospital, treated the first patient to present symptoms.

Fix said the patient was slurring his words and was having difficulty breathing.

“The brain is functioning perfectly fine, but you can’t control your muscles,” Fix told ABC News. “That’s why he was so scared. His brain was working but he couldn't control what was going on. He knew he was getting weaker and weaker."

The reason for the muscle weakness is that the bacteria that leads to botulism releases a nerve toxin that binds to nerve receptors, poisoning them so they can no longer react.

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Fix said the muscle weakness usually starts from the top of the head, such as the eye muscles, and gradually moves down. In severe cases the breathing muscles can be affected and a patient has to be intubated or they will stop breathing.

Three of the affected inmates had to be put on ventilators for up to two months as the toxin worked its way out of their nervous systems.

“It can take weeks to months. You have to just wait it out,” said Fix. “The nerve endings will have to wake up. ... Essentially your nerve endings have to make a new receptor.”

Though there is botulism anti-toxin, Fix said it will not help nerve receptors that have already been affected by the toxin. Instead it will help “soak up” any other toxin that has not yet attached to a nerve receptor.

To create the special batch of jailhouse wine, the unidentified inmate mixed together a concoction of juice mix, fresh and canned fruit in a bag along with water that he then hid in his mattress for a week, according to Fix.

The inmate, who made the wine, told doctors he had made the alcohol “20 times before” using the same recipe, except this time he threw in a potato, Fix said.

“He said it must have been the potato,” said Fix of the inmate.

The bacteria on the skin of the potato were able to rapidly reproduce during the fermentation process, resulting in the eight very sick prisoners.

Fix said she believes the inmate might have thought it would change the flavor or make the alcohol more potent.

“He didn't have a great explanation for why he experimented,” said Fix.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an average of 145 cases of botulism reported every year, of which only 15 percent are food-borne, 65% are infant botulism related to honey, and 20% are from wounds, often related to hypodermic drug use.

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