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Hanoi, Saigon Report Cases of Rare Poisoning Linked to Vegan Pâté

In recent weeks, Vietnam has recorded more than a dozen cases of botulism, a rare and dangerous disease that disables its victims’ nerves, causing paralysis.

On August 29, the Vietnam Food Administration (VFA) under the Ministry of Health issued an urgent PSA to Vietnamese citizens cautioning against food items produced by a company based in Hanoi that specializes in processed vegetarian products such as vegan pâté (under the brand Minh Chay), mushroom floss, sesame salt, and more.

From mid-July through the end of August, hospitals in Hanoi and Saigon have admitted many cases of botulism which share a common link: jars of Minh Chay vegan pâté. According to the VFA, samples of the pâté tested positive for Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium responsible for the disease. 

At the time of the announcement, there were seven patients undergoing botulism treatment at Cho Ray Hospital and the Ho Chi Minh City Hospital for Tropical Diseases. Two others were hospitalized at Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi. All of the victims exhibit varying degrees of neurological symptoms, including paralysis, difficulty breathing, drooping eyelids and trouble speaking. In some cases, the paralysis is severe enough to require assistive ventilation.

On August 31, Bach Mai Hospital received four more cases of botulism, all linked to the vegan pâté. Authorities in Saigon and Hanoi are identifying the company’s past consumers, so the number of cases is expected to increase in the future. Phạm Khánh Phong Lan, a food safety official in HCMC, told Tuoi Tre that so far, the city has found 1,290 people who bought a total of 1,559 jars of pâté online in July and August. 

Botulism, caused by the anaerobic bacterium Clostridium botulinum, is a rare and potentially fatal disease that inflicts extensive neurological damages on victims and can lead to death. The bacterium produces spores that are prevalent in soil and water. However, when introduced to low oxygen levels, appropriate temperatures and pH levels and a sufficient protein source, the spores create the botulinum toxin.

Food stored in cans and jars is often the cause of botulism in adults. There were 205 confirmed cases of botulism in the US in 2016, only 29 of which were foodbourne, according to the US Centers for Disease and Control.

Because of botulism’s rareness, Vietnam did not have the specific antitoxin to treat it. In July, Bach Mai Hospital managed to purchase two doses of botulism antitoxin from Thailand for US$8,000 each to treat its severe cases, a middle-aged couple. The cost was sponsored by the WHO. Without the antitoxin, most patients receive supportive care to alleviate symptoms.

“Usually, severe cases [of botulism] have to be on artificial ventilation for two months. After that, recovery will take many more months,” said Nguyễn Trung Nguyên, director of the Bach Mai Department of Toxicology. “This disease is very rare in Vietnam, but when it hits, it’s quite serious.”

Minh Chay has since put up a warning on its website saying that customers who bought jars of pâté manufactured from July 1 to August 28 should immediately stop consuming them. At the time of writing, it’s unclear what the legal implications of the incident will be for the vegan pâté’s producer.

[Photo via Viet Times]

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