An epidemiologist from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday began reviewing information about seven unexplained deaths in Canyon County, Idaho, between August and January.
County, regional and state health officials reached a point last week at which they had examined all the physical evidence and had done two sets of interviews with families of the victims but still had no idea what caused the deaths.
It isn’t even certain the deaths are connected.
Dr. Thomas Donndelinger, the pathologist who autopsied the seven for the county coroner, was unable to declare causes of death but noted similarities in the appearance of the victims’ intestines and lungs.
Particularly puzzling was that the lungs were collapsed and lacked a lubricating substance normally inside lungs, which prevented them from reinflating.
Officials say it is unlikely there is a public-health hazard. The victims hadn’t eaten at the same places, were not on the same water systems and did not all live in the same city, which makes it unlikely an environmental hazard exists.
Toxins in food or water ordinarily would have affected a larger number of people and in a shorter space of time.
One lab is still studying the possibility the bacterium Clostridium Perfringes Type A might have been involved in one of the deaths, but medical authorities say that is unlikely. The bacteria, common in domestic animals, generally causes diarrhea for a day or two in people.
Some forms of clostridium can be fatal in humans, but usually only if they are introduced into an open wound and not treated properly. Health officials could find no instance of a clostridium fatality in the United States.
Dr. Christine Hahn, Idaho state epidemiologist, said she called the CDC on Wednesday. “We’ve finished as much of a review as we can do, so we’ve asked CDC to come in,” she said.
Hahn, who came to Idaho from the CDC, had previously consulted by phone with the agency and asked people she knew to look at slides from the three dead infants to determine whether a virus killed them. No virus was detected.
Only Dunndelinger has studied all seven victims.
The CDC epidemiologist who began work on Monday will be at some disadvantage, not having seen the bodies immediately after death. However, tissue samples from all of them have been preserved, and the epidemiologist will be able to review information gathered from families and perhaps conduct new interviews.
Hahn says that the investigator could spend a week or so in the area and might ask the CDC to send a pathologist as well.
Meantime, there is little to tell people who are concerned that they might be at risk.
“Our thoughts, whenever something like this happens, is what can we tell the public,” Hahn said. “If we ever have any idea of what was going on, we would tell the public.
“I don’t feel like there has been a public-health message that would be useful. We can’t cry wolf. We have to know when we say something that we are correct.”
She said health officials considered asking the public to provide any clues they might have, but decided, “there was nothing we could even pinpoint that would be something to look for.”
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