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Chronicle Live
Elly Rewcastle

What is botulism? Life-threatening condition linked to weight-loss treatments in Turkey

British travellers heading to Turkey for weight loss surgery are being urged to not rely on private companies to source medical treatments following an outbreak of botulism. Almost 70 cases of the life-threatening condition have been linked to weight-loss injections administered in two private hospitals in Turkey.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), symptoms have ranged from mild to severe and several cases have been hospitalised. It adds that a number of patients have been admitted to intensive care units.

The Foreign Office says that tourists wishing to travel to Turkey for weight-loss treatments should refer to the HealthTurkiye portal website for medical providers who are approved by the Ministry of Health. Individuals considering travelling for treatment should discuss their plans carefully with their doctor, dentist and/or hospital specialist before committing to any procedure abroad.

Read more: Foreign Office issues warning for travellers visiting Turkey for weight loss treatments

Health officials have warned people against travelling to Turkey for stomach injections of the botulism neurotoxin (BoNT), often called botox after the original brand. However, the trademarked brand, Botox, is not linked to the spate of illness in Turkey.

The ECDC has warned that the BoNT procedure carried a “significant risk of developing botulism”. It adds that it “strongly encourages citizens to avoid intragastric treatments with BoNT for obesity in Turkey”.

What is botulism?

Botulism is a rare but life-threatening condition caused by toxins produced by bacteria. These toxins attack the nervous system and can cause paralysis. The NHS says, “Most people with botulism will make a full recovery with treatment, but the paralysis can spread to muscles that control breathing if it is not treated quickly”.

What are the symptoms of botulism?

Symptoms can develop in a few hours or over several days. Depending on the exact type of botulism, some people initially have symptoms such as feeling sick, being sick (vomiting), stomach cramps, diarrhoea or constipation.

Without treatment, botulism eventually causes paralysis that spreads down the body from the head to the legs. Symptoms can include:

  • drooping eyelids

  • blurred or double vision

  • facial muscle weakness

  • difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)

  • slurred speech

  • breathing difficulties

What treatment is available?

Botulism needs to be treated in a hospital. The way it's treated depends on the type of botulism but according to the NHS this usually involves:

  • neutralising the toxins with injections of special antitoxins or antibodies

  • supporting the functions of the body, such as breathing, until you recover

Treatment will not immediately reverse any paralysis that's already been caused by the toxin but will stop it from getting any worse. In most people, the paralysis that occurred before treatment will gradually improve over the following weeks or months.

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