Use Caution Eating Walrus Meat in Alaska, Report Urges

CNN/ Newswire | 7/7/2017, 12:21 p.m.
Anyone looking to enjoy some walrus meat should be sure it's thoroughly cooked, officials say.
This is a photomicrograph depicting numbers of Trichinella spiralis cysts seen embedded in a muscle tissue specimen, in a case of trichinellosis, which was acquired by ingesting meat containing cysts (encysted larvae) of Trichinella sp. roundworm (nematode) parasites.

By Daniella Emanuel


(CNN) -- Anyone looking to enjoy some walrus meat should be sure it's thoroughly cooked, officials say.

Alaska has had two outbreaks of trichellosis over the past year, which is a disease caused by ingesting animals that eat meat, namely walrus, according to a report published Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The infection, also known as trichinosis, is caused by eating the raw or undercooked meat of animals that are infected with a worm called Trichinella, according to the CDC.

The worm is typically found in pork as well as wild game such as bear and mountain lion. Trichinellosis cannot be spread through human contact.

Many residents of coastal communities in northern and western Alaska consume walrus and other marine mammals as part of subsistence hunting, or hunting for survival. This tradition is critical to their nutrition, food security and economic stability, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"People who are consuming walrus need to be aware that there is a possibility of being exposed to this parasite," said Yuri Springer, a co-author of the report and an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer for the Alaska Division of Public Health.

"They need to be aware of the types of symptoms they would be experiencing should they be infected, and they need to know that if they are infected, they can seek medical care to alleviate those symptoms," he said.

All 10 people affected in the Alaska outbreaks have recovered.

If a human or animal eats meat infected with Trichinella cysts, the CDC says, their stomach acid dissolves the hard covering of the cysts, releasing the worms, which then pass into the small intestine.

The worms mate and lay eggs that develop into immature worms, which travel through the arteries and into the muscles. There, they curl up and return to their original cyst formation, and the life cycle continues.

The first symptoms of trichinellosis can include abdominal issues such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. Further symptoms may include headaches, fevers, chills, cough, facial swelling, aching joints and muscle pain, caused by inflammation in the muscles from the worms burrowing through.

Tourists are not at risk of getting the infection from eating walrus, Springer said, because consumption takes place solely in coastal villages.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, only Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt and consume walrus, polar bears and several sea species, according to the report. It is not commercially available or served at restaurants.

"But we definitely have folks coming up from time to time to hunt bear. That's part of recreational hunting," Springer said. "And I believe those persons may potentially be at risk if they consume meat from the harvested bear. So, yeah, those folks should definitely be aware of the risk of exposure."

Anyone in the lower 48 who hunts and consumes wild game -- including bear, boar and mountain lion -- is susceptible, Springer said.

Trichinellosis and its impact on Alaska