CHAPTICO, Md. - Guests at a recent church dinner here got more than the expected home-cooked meal.
Following a meal of stuffed ham and fried oysters served recently at the annual dinner, many of the guests experienced nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever - all symptoms of salmonella illness.
Visits to local emergency rooms and physicians began four days after the church supper.
The outbreak was caused by Salmonella heidelberg, which was confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
S. heidelberg was isolated from the ham, stuffed with kale and various spices, a native delicacy of St. Mary's County, Maryland. Turkey stuffing was also served, and one of three specimens was positive for S. heidelberg, due to cross contamination, according to investigators. "It could have easily happened with just a spoon," said Mary H. Novotny, St. Mary's County health education coordinator.
The method of contamination is still undetermined, but samples of turkey gravy and oysters tested negative for S. heidelberg. Additional test results are pending, according to Novotny.
"The parishioners have been outstanding in their cooperation with the health department staff. All individuals who supplied or cooked the food have also cooperated to the fullest extent," said Ebenezer Israel, MD, St. Mary's County health officer. "As with any detective work, it may be weeks before we can say what happened."
Of the approximately 1,400 people who attended the church dinner, 952 were interviewed and 746 reported symptoms of the foodborne illness; 161 were seen at three area hospitals. Further epidemiological and demographic data were incomplete at press time.
An 81-year-old woman who attended the dinner died as a result of salmonella septicemia, complicated by coronary heart disease, Novotny said.
Liquids were the primary treatment for most cases, but antibiotics were used in at least five cases.
Food carried out during the first hour of operation was associated with a high attack rate, suggesting that the food was contaminated prior to being served. The ham was prepared at a commercial establishment, but the stuffing was prepared at the church.
The county health department plans to hold training sessions for non-profit organizations to ensure anyone who prepares food for public consumption understands the correct ways to cook, store and serve it.
For more information:
- Control of Communicable Diseases Manual. Abram S. Benenson, editor. 16th edition. 1995. American Public Health Association.
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