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Botulism occurs rarely, but it causes concern because of its high fatality rate. Clinical descriptions of botulism possibly reach as far back in history as ancient Rome and Greece. However, the relationship between contaminated food and botulism wasn't defined until the late 1700s. In 1793 the German physician, Justinius Kerner, deduced that a substance in spoiled sausages, which he called wurstgift (German for sausage poison), caused botulism. The toxin's origin and identity remained elusive until Emile von Ermengem, a Belgian professor, isolated Clostridium botulinum in 1895 and identified it as the poison source.

Three types of botulism have been identified: foodborne, wound, and infant botulism. The main difference between types hinges on the route of exposure to the toxin. In the United States, there are approximately 110 cases of botulism reported annually. Food-borne botulism accounts for 25% of all botulism cases and usually can be traced to eating contaminated home-preserved food. Infant botulism accounts for 72% of all cases, but the recovery rate is good (about 98%) with proper treatment. From 1990 to 2000, 263 cases of food-borne cases were reported in the United States, most of them in Alaska. Though most were related to home canning, two restaurant-associated outbreaks affected 25 people.

Though domestic food poisoning is a problem world-wide, there has been a growing concern regarding the use of botulism toxin in biological warfare and terrorist acts. The Iraqi government admitted in 1995 that it had loaded 11,200 liters of botulinum toxin into SCUD missiles during the Gulf War. Luckily, these special missiles were never used. As of 1999, there were 17 countries known to be developing biological weapons, including the culture of botulism toxins.

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