Officials seek culprit in foodborne illnesses Convention Center lunch left 49 people feeling sick

November 23, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Health officials expect to know this week what caused 49 people to become ill after eating food served at a luncheon during a health care conference at the Baltimore Convention Center last week.

Those who became ill reported suffering stomach cramps and diarrhea after eating at a two-day conference sponsored by Healthy Start, said Dr. Peter Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner. None of them went to area hospitals for treatment.

"We're not sure what caused the [foodborne illness] outbreak," Beilenson said yesterday. "But we're looking at the chicken as the possible vehicle."

Between 400 and 450 people were served chicken Monday, the first day of the event.

The conference was catered by Service America Inc., state officials said. Attempts to reach company officials yesterday were unsuccessful.

"Service America has an exclusive arrangement to cater events held at the convention center," said Tori Leonard, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "We've interviewed several staff members and managers who worked at the Healthy Start conference. Our investigation is ongoing."

Healthy Start was established in 1991 as part of a federal effort to reduce infant mortality rates in low-income areas by getting prenatal care and other health and counseling services to young mothers. Baltimore was one of 15 cities to adopt the program.

In the past few days, people who attended the conference have been interviewed to determine what they ate and when. Several people who reported being sick immediately after the conference gave stool samples, which the state health department is testing.

"We expect to have the test results by the end of the week," Leonard said.

Because the organisms that cause foodborne illnesses are so widespread, experts believe that the only sure way to prevent disease is to cook food thoroughly. That means cooking eggs until the yolks are solid and poultry until no trace of pink remains.

"There are some simple food rules that people should follow," Beilenson said. "If your meat is pink and runny, or if your food does not smell good, don't eat it."

Foodborne illnesses are usually mild, lasting one to four days, Leonard said. But they can be much more serious for people with weakened immune systems, including the elderly, the very young and people with AIDS, cancer and other chronic illnesses. In severe cases, such illnesses can cause life-threatening dehydration or blood poisoning.

An 81-year-old woman suffered fatal complications caused by salmonella after she and nearly 750 others became ill after eating stuffed ham at a church supper Nov. 2 in St. Mary's County.

In 1992, the last year for which records are available, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received reports of 80 salmonella outbreaks involving 2,834 people. Four people died in those outbreaks.

"If you become sick, you should contact your physician and drink plenty of fluids," Leonard said. "We don't recommend over-the-counter medications."

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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