CHAPTICO -- One person has died from food poisoning and at least 143 others became sick after eating a stuffed ham, turkey and fried oyster dinner at a small Catholic church in this tiny Southern Maryland community.
Health officials said yesterday that the culprit is salmonella, a bacterium that is a common source of food poisoning.
The incident represents the largest salmonella outbreak in Maryland in at least five years.
Investigators have not determined what specific food triggered the illness that spread among the 1,400 people who purchased a dinner Sunday afternoon at the annual Fall Festival at Our Lady of the Wayside Church in Chaptico, little more than a crossroads about 40 miles southeast of Washington.
Church officials said they were devastated by the event, which caused dozens of people to pour into area hospitals and doctors' offices over the past three days complaining of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps and other flu-like symptoms.
"The whole parish is in a state of shock and sorrow over it," said the Rev. John Stack, the church's pastor and priest.
"It's been an awful couple of days."
The dinner, which included sweet potatoes, green beans, cole slaw and rolls, is a longtime tradition for the church's 400 members.
Advertising in church bulletins within and outside the county attracted bus loads of customers from as far away as Silver Spring and Baltimore to buy a $14 dinner to take out or a $15 dinner to eat at the new church hall.
The outbreak sent health officials scrambling to track down those who attended the dinner, including one person in North Carolina and another in California.
State and St. Mary's County health officials said the deceased was an elderly person who lived in the county.
They declined to reveal her name, although church members described her as an 83-year-old woman who had been in poor health.
Often transmitted by contaminated meat, poultry or eggs, salmonella is considered a particular threat to the elderly and the young.
While many incidents likely go unreported, about 1,200 cases are identified each year in Maryland and they result in eight to 10 deaths and 250 to 300 hospitalizations, said Dr. Diane M. Dwyer, director of epidemiology and disease control for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Victims don't generally become sick for 12 to 36 hours and sometimes as long as 72 hours after a meal, and officials speculated that the number of reported cases from Chaptico might rise.
"We are dealing with an outbreak," said Dr. Ebenezer Israel, the county's health officer. "We believe there are many more cases out there."
Many of the victims wound up at St. Mary's Hospital in Lexington Park, where 65 people were treated, including 13 who were admitted. None of the cases was considered life-threatening.
In neighboring Charles County, at least 26 people were treated at Physicians Memorial Hospital in LaPlata.
Four were admitted, all of whom were in fair condition last night, a hospital spokeswoman said.
The outbreak traveled like a shock wave across the county. In some cases, whole families became ill.
"It's really crazy," said Susan Cusic, 31, of nearby Clements, who attended the dinner with 10 family members and saw four get sick. "It's hard to believe it was the food. We all ate the turkey. We all ate the stuffed ham."
Donald "Bubba" Burroughs left the St. Mary's emergency room at 7 o'clock last night after a full day in the hospital. He said the symptoms started Monday afternoon and acted like a 24-hour flu that extended its stay.
"It's been three days," said Burroughs. "I thought it would go away."
Brian Beaven, 13, an eighth-grader at Mother Catherine Spalding School near Chaptico, said he, his mother and two cousins became sick.
All had served as volunteers at the dinner.
"I ate everything and everything tasted good," he said.
"My mother started feeling bad right after supper. She's been very, very sick."
The sick who showed up at the hospital were generally treated with intravenous fluids and medication to control their symptoms.
Dr. Orest Bartoczyk, a St. Mary's cardiologist, said health officials told him and others at the hospital that inadequately cooked turkey was probably the source of the outbreak.
Church officials said none of the meat was prepared on the premises, but was cooked at home by church members.
The Fall Festival is a widely known tradition and a major fund-raiser for the church that has been held annually for 50 years.
"With all this, you wouldn't believe it, but we have the best dinner around," Stack said.
For Nick Serenati of Mechanicsville, the Sunday dinner was like an unexpected form of punishment.
The 18-year-old was there only because he helped park cars at the church to work off the public service requirement imposed for a recent traffic ticket.
His reward was a free dinner.
"You get hot spells and cold spells and intestinal trouble," said Serenati, who became sick Monday night after attending a basketball game.