Two sisters from California are in intensive care after eating canned cactus and contracting a rare disease

NBC News

A family party near Fresno, California, ended with 10 people treated for botulism, a rare and serious illness caused by a bacteria that affects the nervous system, public authorities reported Friday.

The outbreak appears to be linked to home-canned nopales.

Two sisters are currently recovering in intensive care, a Fresno County Public Health Department spokesperson told NBC News. One of the sisters underwent a tracheostomy, a procedure to create a breathing tube in the neck, due to respiratory complications caused by the disease.

The other eight people hospitalized have been discharged, and no new cases have been recorded since then.

“I’ve been in the county for 26 years and this is the first time we’ve had a foodborne botulism outbreak,” said Norma Sanchez, a disease specialist with the Fresno County Department of Public Health, at a news conference Tuesday.

The first two people who felt ill after the party were initially diagnosed with vertigo and sent home from the hospital, Sanchez said. Only after a thorough investigation, which included going through the family’s trash and interviewing partygoers, was it discovered that the botulism was due to canned nopales in the house.

Sanchez learned from the cook that she herself had canned the nopales in May. Because the incident was limited to family members and home-cooked food, health authorities did not have to remove the nopales from supermarket shelves.

At the same press conference, Rais Vohra, acting health officer, warned community members about the risks of home-canned food, noting that this practice is common among families seeking to preserve tradition.

According to the CDC, botulism is caused by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum and can be caused by improperly canned, preserved or home-fermented foods. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, muscle weakness and blurred vision.

Vohra stresses that although botulism is a very serious and potentially fatal disease, most people who contract it can fully recover.