The largest food-borne cholera outbreak to appear in the United States since the beginning of a massive epidemic in South America was confirmed by New Jersey state health officials yesterday.
Eight people, from Jersey City and West New York, became ill earlier this month after consuming illegally imported crab meat from Ecuador. Four were later diagnosed as suffering from cholera, a potentiallyfatal disease whose symptoms include severe diarrhea and vomiting leading to dehydration.
All the victims recovered.
The suspect crab meat was cooked in Ecuador, illegally transported in a plastic bag on a plane without refrigeration and served in a salad without any recooking, according to health officials.
"[The crab] was considered grossly mishandled," said Darlene Weiner, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health in Trenton. "Itwas an isolated and contained incident. . . . The sanitation in New Jersey is adequate enough to make the risk of secondary transmission [from infected individuals to others] extremely small."
Even so, the New Jersey episode is the third in this country linked to the worsening South American cholera epidemic, which originated in Peru 10 weeks ago and has since spread to Ecuador and Colombia. To date, more than 150,000 people have contracted the disease andmore than 1,000 have died, according to international health officials.
Inadequate sewer systems, contaminated water supplies and consumption of raw or undercooked foods, particularly fish and shellfish, have contributed to the epidemic.
Peru, Ecuador and Colombia all export food to the United States, including seafood and produce. At present, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is sampling all Peruvian imports for the bacteria responsible for the illnesses: Vibrio cholera. However, only random samples are being taken from Ecuador, which is a major importer of shrimp and bananas into the United States.
"There is little or no risk of illness from commercial products [originating in the cholera zone]," said Chris Lecos, an FDA spokesman in Washington.
The Centers for Disease Control, in a recent report on the cholera epidemic, conceded that "a small number of U.S. residents may acquire the disease . . . by eating imported food."