Please cook your walrus "well done," warn health officials following outbreak

An undated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo shows Pacific Walrus at Cape Peirce at Bristol Bay on Alaska's southwest coast. 

AP/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If walrus is in your dinner plans, make sure it's cooked well done, health officials recommend.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials are warning the public of the risk of eating undercooked game meat after two outbreaks of trichinosis over the last year in western Alaska were tied to consuming walrus meat. The outbreaks sickened 10 people. All have fully recovered.

It was the first time since 1992 that multiple-case outbreaks of trichinosis were associated with walrus, which can only be hunted by Alaska Natives for subsistence or handicraft purposes.

Health care providers are being urged by CDC officials in this week's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report to consider wild game consumption when patients present with suspected trichinosis.

Trichinosis is contracted by eating raw or undercooked meat from animals infected with a microscopic roundworm. High heat kills the parasite.

Historically, the disease was most frequently associated with eating undercooked pork. Since the late 1990s, though, wild game has been the suspected cause in most cases.

Often in Alaska, it's linked with black bear or polar bear meat. However, among the 241 trichinosis cases reported in Alaska since 1975, 24 were associated with eating undercooked seal and 100 were tied to walrus.

In the recent cases, a girl in mid-August reported pain and swelling in her legs, difficultly walking, an itchy rash, fever and muscle pain. Blood tests found that she, her brother and her father had a parasitic infection. All three had eaten walrus on July 17 that was pan-fried to "medium."

In September, staff at a Nome hospital treated the girl's uncle and aunt about a week after they ate raw walrus. Alaska health officials counseled them and noted that the parasite in Arctic species can't be killed by smoking, drying or fermenting the meat.

The outbreak prompted a public service campaign warning of trichinosis before the spring walrus hunt.

In May, as the campaign began, state health officials were notified of an outbreak in a Norton Sound coastal community 100 miles (161 kilometers) from the first village. A man suffering severe muscle and joint pain received treatment in Nome. He and four people from neighboring households had shared walrus boiled for an hour, which fully cooked the exterior but left the interior undercooked or raw, a taste and texture many people prefer.

Two people tested positive for trichinosis. Three showed symptoms but may have tested negative because of the time elapsed between infection and testing.

Early signs of infection show up a day or two after eating meat and can include diarrhea, stomach pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. Symptoms that appear one to two weeks later can include swelling in the face, fatigue, fever, muscle soreness, itching and difficulty coordinating movement.