Subi Babu (second from left), Shibu Kochummen and his mother Alekutty Daniel who have fallen gravely ill after eating contaminated wild boar. The couple’s children are being cared for by members of their church. Photo / Supplied
Subi Babu (second from left), Shibu Kochummen and his mother Alekutty Daniel who have fallen gravely ill after eating contaminated wild boar. The couple’s children are being cared for by members of their church. Photo / Supplied

Paralysed family possibly poisoned by rare botulism toxin

UPDATE: Doctors believe three people left gravely ill after eating wild boar are suffering from botulism, a Waikato Hospital spokeswoman says.

"While we don't know the exact cause and source of this illness, we now believe it is botulism. The three patients are responding to botulism antitoxin and are recovering in hospital.

"We have sent samples off to a specialist centre in Queensland for testing but it may take several weeks before we get the results. We have no evidence to believe there is any public health issue," the spokeswoman said.

Husband and wife Shibu Kochummen, 35, and Subi Babu, 32, and Kochummen's 62-year-old mother, Alekutty Daniel fell ill a week ago after eating what is thought to have been contaminated wild boar. All are stable in the Hamilton hospital's acute ward.

Botulism, a rare and potentially fatal illness, is caused by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. Symptoms can include vomiting, muscle weakness and paralysis.

Family friend Joji Varghese said earlier this afternoon doctors were keen for people to know the trio were ill because of the rare toxin.

"I asked 'should I use this word?' They said 'yes, it's about time somebody should start saying that word'."

Treatment is already under way, and all three had shown signs of improvement, Babu being moved this afternoon from the high-dependency unit to join her husband and mother-in-law in the acute ward, Varghese said.

All are expected to survive, but face a long road to recovery - perhaps as long as four to six months, and they may be left with disabilities.

The speed and nature of recovery was individual, so the exact prognosis for the trio was not known, he said.

None could yet talk or swallow and while they had opened their eyes, it would be inaccurate to say they were conscious.

Babu and Kochummen have two daughters, aged 7 and 1, who are in the care of church members until an aunt and uncle arrive from India in a few days.

The oldest daughter had been taken to see her parents once, but that was not likely to be repeated in the near future, Varghese said.

It was dawning on her that her parents were not going to get better quickly, he said.

"The kids are coping [but] they are sad, especially the elder one ... there's that look of abandonment, 'why are my parents not talking to me?' And 'I'm not where I belong'.

"The sooner we hand them over to familiar faces, the better. I'm hoping that will put them more at ease."

Earlier, the family's mysterious illness made headlines after all three members started vomiting and fainty and were left in a "vegetative state".

Waikato DHB's medical officer of health, Dr Richard Vipond, said earlier this week experts were still investigating potential sources of the illness, including wild pork meat.

"We do not have any evidence to determine any broader contaminated game meat, or that there is a risk to public health, however I would encourage anyone who is hunting or handling game meat to follow guidelines as set out by the Ministry for Primary Industries [MPI]," he said.

Friend Joji Varghese told Mail Online the family had "intermittent consciousness" but "for all practical purposes, unresponsive and in a vegetative state."

New Zealand National Poisons Centre director and medical toxicologist Dr Adam Pomerleau said the sudden onset of the illness in all three adults suggested a toxin rather than an infection, although he had not seen the patients' clinical details.

The NZ Deerstalkers' Association president Bill O'Leary he had never heard of anyone being poisoned from game meat - but it was not that uncommon for wild animals to be dropped off at a game butcher and then be deemed unfit for human consumption.

"From a hunter's point of view, this is the first incident I've heard of a number of people going down," he said.

O'Leary questioned how the meat was treated, including whether it was gutted quickly and safely and how long it had been left out before or after cooking.

He also said it was important for hunters to get their kill somewhere cool quickly especially as temperatures rise.

• Remove organs as soon as possible to avoid contamination with faecal matter and to help cool the animal down
• Take precautions to avoid puncturing the gut, including shooting the animal in the head or forequarter and using a specialised knife for gutting
• Checking for signs of illness in the animal including unusual smells, swollen organs or being underweight
• Cleaning gear and hands before and during bleeding and gutting the animal
• Chill the carcass as soon as possible
• Avoiding hunting in areas where poisons have been laid

This article was originally published on the New Zealand Herald and is republished here with permission.