What is botulism and what does Agatha Christie have to do with it?

Delivery services have become especially popular during the pandemic and are still thriving – residents of large cities order groceries and ready-made meals from restaurants every day. It sounds great, but the quality of ordered products is often poor and in some cases even poses a serious threat to health. Thus, since June 15, about 30-40 cases of suspected rare and very serious disease – botulism – have been registered in Moscow, and at the time of writing this article, the number of victims, according to some sources, has exceeded 100 people. Potentially dangerous products turned out to be lobio bean salad and tuna salad, because of which a total of 30 people ended up in intensive care. We figure out what botulism is, how you can get infected and what to do to avoid getting sick.

What is botulism and what does Agatha Christie have to do with it? Botulism is a dangerous disease caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Image: s0.rbk.ru. Photo.

Botulism is a dangerous disease caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Image: s0.rbk.ru


  • 1 History of botulism
  • 2 Types of botulism
  • 3 Symptoms of botulism
    • 3.1 Treatment of botulism
  • 4 Outbreak of botulism in Moscow and other cities
  • 5 Prevention < /li>

History of botulism

The first evidence of botulism dates back to the early 19th century, when doctors noticed a link between the consumption of contaminated food and the serious condition of patients. Name «botulism» comes from the Latin word «botulus», which means «sausage» – all because the first epidemic of the disease was associated with the consumption of sausages.

On December 14, 1895, in the Belgian village of Elsel, a funeral was held for the founder of the local orchestra, at which the musicians were poisoned by an unknown poison. The investigation led not only to the discovery of the causative agent of botulism, but also to the birth of the world-famous detective Hercule Poirot.

The history of botulism. The Elsel poisoning inspired Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot. Image: images.saymedia-content.com. Photo.

The poisoning in Elsel inspired Agatha Christie to create the detective Hercule Poirot. Image: images.saymedia-content.com

At the wake of the most prominent resident of the village, countless amounts of alcohol and the best ham, which had been smoked for 50 days, were put on the table. The treat turned out to be so tasty that almost every guest got a piece. Problems began the next morning, when both local doctors were overwhelmed trying to visit 20 village houses at once.

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The first symptoms resembled simple poisoning, but over time, in addition to vomiting and painful urination, vision complaints were added – those who ate the most ham had dilated pupils, double vision, and were also tormented by thirst. When the patients were given water, they began to suffocate, and the liquid poured out through the nose. As a result, victims of the mysterious «poison» became three musicians.

To understand what happened, police detectives arrived in Elsel and at first the main version was considered to be murder. It was possible to dot all the i's only after involving microbiologist Emil van Ermengem, a specialist in bacteria, in the investigation, who studied two pieces of ham and the spleen of deceased musicians and found in them traces of the vital activity of unknown anaerobic bacteria (capable of living without air) .

History of botulism. Clostridium botulinum is a bacteria that, in low oxygen conditions, produces dangerous toxins (botulinum toxins). Image: www.hygiena.com. Photo.

Clostridium botulinum are bacteria that, in low oxygen conditions, produce dangerous toxins (botulinum toxins). Image: www.hygiena.com

Studying the bacteria, Ermenham came to the conclusion that they produce a terrible poison, 0.0005 milligrams of which instantly kill a rabbit. These microorganisms were «botulism bacilli» (as the doctor called them). Let us note that botulism was first identified by German doctors 100 years before the funeral, so the disease already had a name, and Ermenham, in turn, discovered its cause.

Even more interesting articles about the causative agents of a wide variety of diseases and Read about ways to treat them on our channel in Yandex.Zen – articles that are not on the site are regularly published there!

This amazing story caught the eye of the writer Agatha Christie, which is why she decided to make her Sherlock Holmes a Belgian invited to England as a private detective, and his prototype – the doctor Emil – became Hercule.

Types of botulism

So, what is botulism? The toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum affects the nervous system and can lead to muscle paralysis. Without timely treatment, botulism can lead to death. Interestingly, botulism can occur as a result of several types of exposure to the toxin – researchers distinguish food botulism, wound botulism, inhalation botulism and infant botulism.

With food botulisminfection occurs by eating food containing botulinum toxin. Most often these are canned foods, especially home-cooked foods – smoked meats, sausages and fermented foods. This is because the bacteria Clostridium botulinum can survive in anaerobic environments and produce a toxin.

Types of botulism. Food botulism is a severe, potentially fatal, but relatively rare disease. Image: berdsk-online.ru. Photo.

Foodborne botulism is a severe, potentially fatal, but relatively rare disease. Image: berdsk-online.ru

Wound botulism is spoken of when bacterial spores enter a wound and produce a toxin inside the body. This can happen, for example, when using contaminated instruments or injection materials.

Types of botulism. If a patient with botulism is not treated in time, the outcome can be fatal. Image: aif-s3.aif.ru. Photo.

If a patient with botulism is not treated promptly, the outcome can be fatal. Image: aif-s3.aif.ru

Infant botulism, in turn, occurs in infants when bacterial spores enter the intestines and begin to multiply there, releasing a toxin. Honey is often the source, so it is not recommended for children under one year of age. The rarest form of the disease isinhalational botulism, which can occur when the toxin is inhaled, but such cases are usually associated with laboratory accidents or bioterrorism.

Read also: The appearance of bruises on the body can be a symptom of a fatal disease

Symptoms of botulism

Symptoms of this rare and dangerous disease may appear hours or days after infection. It is important to know them in order to seek medical help in time.

To initial symptomsinclude nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation, followed by neurological symptoms such as weakness and fatigue, double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, difficulty swallowing and speaking, and dry mouth.

Botulism symptoms. Botulism can only be defeated by promptly contacting a doctor. Image: img.championat.com. Photo.

Botulism can only be defeated by promptly contacting a doctor. Image: img.championat.com

To late symptomsBotulism includes progressive muscle paralysis (starting in the head and neck and down the body), difficulty breathing, which can lead to respiratory failure.

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Treatment of botulism

If the patient suspects botulism, you should immediately seek medical help. Treatment involves the use of an antitoxin, which neutralizes botulinum toxin in the body. It is important to remember that it is effectiveif administered early in the disease.

Most patients with botulism require hospitalization. Mechanical ventilation may be needed if necessary, and recovery may take weeks or months. Supportive care includes physical therapy, swallowing and speech training. Antibiotics for botulism are also used at the initial stage of the disease to destroy bacteria, but they are not effective against taxin itself.

Treatment of botulism. With timely medical intervention and compliance with clinical recommendations, botulism is sooner or later completely cured. Image: gorodprima.ru. Photo.

With timely medical intervention and compliance with clinical recommendations, botulism is sooner or later completely cured. Image: gorodprima.ru

Did you know that in the future genetically modified bacteria will be able to replace antibiotics? Read more in the article by my colleague Andrey Zhukov!

Outbreak of botulism in Moscow and other cities

Since botulism is a rare but dangerous disease, any outbreak attracts public attention. Due to the fact that 121 people in Moscow sought medical help with symptoms of botulism, doctors are conducting an examination in a hospital setting, deputy mayor Anastasia Rakova told RBC reporters.

The situation, alas, remains alarming, as «currently 55 people are in serious condition, 30 of them in intensive care». Fortunately, thanks to timely seeking medical help, there is no threat to the lives of these patients.

Botulism outbreak in Moscow and other cities. More than 120 people with symptoms of botulism are hospitalized in Moscow. Image: media.assettype.com. Photo.

More than 120 people with symptoms of botulism were hospitalized in Moscow. Image: media.assettype.com

According to media reports, the first victims began to seek medical help on June 14 and 15, and the cause of the illness was libio salad and salad with tuna, beans and apple (brand «Kitchen in the area»). Searches are being carried out in companies and warehouses where canned food was stored. As for the operation of the application through which users made the ill-fated order, it has temporarily stopped working.

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Updated 06/18/2024
Reports of botulism outbreaks are also coming from other cities, including Nizhny Novgorod (12 people in intensive care), Kazan (14 people hospitalized) and the Moscow region. According to Interfax, earlier on Tuesday the Investigative Committee reported that the investigation into the case of mass poisoning of people with food from a delivery service in Moscow detained three suspects — the actual head of a commercial organization for the production of products, the general director of a private organization for the preparation and delivery of food in the Moscow region, as well as the head of the quality department.


Prevention of botulism includes several key measures, the main place which involvesproper preparation and storage of food: experts recommend following the rules of canning. This means that before canning, food must be cooked at a temperature of at least 121°C for 3 minutes to kill spores.

Canned foods with bulging lids or signs of spoilage should not be eaten!You should also avoid foods containing botulism spores and do not give honey to children under one year of age. Caution should also be exercised with fermented and smoked foods.

Prevention. Botulism is a hidden threat. Image: tv-gubernia.ru. Photo.

Botulism is a hidden threat. Image: tv-gubernia.ru

If we are talking about wound botulism, then it is necessary to treat wounds in a timely and correct manner, avoiding the use of non-sterile materials for injections, experts note .

Public awareness plays an important role in the prevention of botulism. Ultimately, botulism is a serious disease. Fortunately, if you take the right preventive measures and seek medical help in a timely manner, severe consequences can be avoided. It is necessary to remember potential sources of infection and be attentive to symptoms. In a word, observe hygiene and food preparation rules and be healthy!