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Prison inmates ill again

The Union-Bulletin

By Kathleen Obenland Jul 17 2002

Thirty-eight inmates are sick in the second foodborne illness to hit the prison this year.

Local and state health officials are investigating the second foodborne illness outbreak this year at the Washington State Penitentiary.

Inmates began falling ill Monday. Thirty-eight inmates were sick as of today, with 17 in the hospital and another 21 suffering similar but less severe symptoms, said Lori Scamahorn, penitentiary public information officer.

Four staff members also are sick, but it is not clear if their illnesses are related.

Most of the sick inmates are from the segregation units, where they eat from trays alone in their cells. So far, six have tested positive for campylobacter jejuni.

Campylobacter is a communicable disease that can cause bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, cramping, nausea and vomiting. In healthy people it usually resolves itself within a few days. It can be serious - although rarely fatal - in people with other significant health problems.

All of the people diagnosed with the disease are being treated with antibiotics.

This is the second outbreak of campylobacter jejuni at the facility this year.

"Even the health officials said it is pretty unusual to have another outbreak in such a short period of time,'' Scamahorn said. "I've been working in prisons for 25 years and never have I seen it before.''

In March, 65 inmates at the facility became ill. Of those, 27 tested positive for campylobacter jejuni and 16 others were considered "probable'' cases.

The Washington state Department of Health recently completed its report on the outbreak. It identified the most likely point of contamination as a stainless steel food preparation table.

On March 9, bags of raw chicken were opened on the table. Officials believe celery and onions may have later been chopped on the table for tuna sandwiches that were served March 13.

All of the people who became ill after that outbreak recovered.

The penitentiary instituted changes to food preparation practices after that incident, including stressing hand washing among inmates, requiring food handlers to wear gloves during preparation and serving, and thoroughly sanitizing food preparation surfaces.

Since there has been a second outbreak, it appears that not all of those measures are being followed correctly, Scamahorn said.

"(Health officials) are looking at all the same types of issues they looked at the first time,'' she said.

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