A New Animal Pathogen?

A potential outbreak with certain parallels to prion diseases, but other differences as well. Similar in that that those affected worked in the department that rendered pork brains, and their initial symptoms seem to be neurological. However, having 12 cases in less than a year suggests something faster spreading, perhaps a virus, or also a neurotoxin is still something to look into. There’s not a lot of information in the initial reports. So go to work public health reporters!

Recall that the first cases of SARS have also been traced to animal renderers, although that was in China, so this item didn’t appear in newspapers until several months after the outbreak started. And there’s some health issues in China that are not being subjected to very much scrutiny, like this outbreak of strange neurological symptoms and this outbreak among swine. As the Chinese leadership apparently mis-learned the lesson from SARS, which for them unfortunately was: do a better job of covering up disease outbreaks.  Highly recommended here is Karl Taro Greenfeld’s book The China Syndrome.

If there is one point of the posts on this site regarding Public Health it is this: the quality of public health reporting will infinitely affect your lives, much more than 99.9% of the other stuff carried in most newspapers today.  And the scope of that high quality public health reporting, due to our highly globalised flows of people and food, has to be international, not just local. 

But the US still has a relatively free press, recent developments not withstanding, so we still get a disease monitoring system for free, and here it is at work:

Illness among Austin pork plant workers remains a mystery

Associated Press – December 12, 2007 7:34 AM ET

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Health officials have backed away from their initial diagnoses of strange neurological illnesses among eleven workers at a pork processing plant in Austin.

They also say a 12th employee now appears to have the same symptoms.

Last week, the state announced an investigation into a cluster of illnesses found in eleven workers at Quality Pork Processors. At the time, they identified the condition as CIDP.

But after additional testing, officials say none of the workers fits the precise diagnosis of the rare disease, although the tingling and numbness the workers have in their arms and legs are similar to it.

The employees all worked in the same area of the plant, slicing meat off pigs’ heads and using compressed air to remove the brains from the skulls.

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The initial reports (below) diagnosed it as CIPD, which is very rare, and the cluster appeared very quickly, with 12 cases in about 8 months.

Mystery Illness at Quality Pork Processors in Minnesota Has Workers Worried, Scientists Baffled
Date Published: Monday, December 10th, 2007

Workers at Quality Pork Processors, Inc. in Minnesota are getting a rare disease called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), and many others are worried, says their union. There is an area on the slaughterhouse floor at Quality Pork that is known as the “head table,” where workers cut up pigs’ heads and shoot compressed air into the skulls to remove their brains, a noisy, smelly, bloody process that involves dismantling over 1,100 pigs’ heads an hour. The relatively uncommon practice was suspended at Quality Pork earlier this week because during a recent eight-month period, 11 head table workers developed numbness, tingling, or other neurological symptoms. Some scientists suspect inhaled brain matter—turned into mist when compressed—may have triggered the diseases or that workers may have come into contact with something dangerous and then touched their noses or mouths. Scientists are working to determine if there is something in the brain matter that could be causing the symptoms. The Minnesota Health Department says they are not ruling out other causes.

The company has harvested pork brains on and off for years, depending on demand, but it’s not known why workers began getting sick and it is unclear how many of the plant’s 1,300 employees worked at the head table. Safety glasses, helmets, gloves, and belly guards protected head-table workers; however, nothing protected their mouths or noses. Workers are now required to wear face shields and protective sleeves.

Five workers have been diagnosed with CIDP, a rare immune disorder that attacks the nerves and produces tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and legs, sometimes causing chronic damage. CIDP attacks the lining of the nerves, slowing or blocking the brain’s signals to the muscles; exactly what triggers the attack is unknown. Victims can recover quickly if the illness is caught early, but in advanced cases, treatment arrests the disease but doesn’t reverse it and involves immune globulin infusions or a plasma-exchange technique that removes antibodies from the blood. Another option is the steroid prednisone. Typically, new cases of CIDP occur at the rate of one or two per 100,000 people annually, according the Mayo Clinic.

A New Animal Pathogen?

3 thoughts on “A New Animal Pathogen?

  1. Geoff says:

    I read about this issue for the first time today. I was a Salesman for Hormel Foods until 2003. I worked out of my home in Michigan and was a salesperson for there Grocery division. I spent some time in Austin, but most of my time was spent in Michigan. I’m only 42 this year, but I had to retire in 2003 because I developed CIDP. I also have since developed MS and rheumatoid Arthritis ( all auto immune diseases). I doubt if this is related but I would like more info on it if you know were I could find some.
    Thank you!

  2. Geoff:

    The theory regarding this condition that most seem to think (provisionally) is accurate is that exposure to aerosolized porcine brain matter triggers an auto-immune system response, where the human immune system starts attacking nerve tissue.

    If this is the cause, the main considerations here would be: did you visit plants where porcine brain matter was aerosolized?

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