A Minnesota Medical Mystery

There is a disease detective mystery unfolding right here in Minnesota. Two of the project advisors for the Disease Detectives exhibition (Dr. Ruth Lynfield and Dr. Mike Osterholm) are working to discover what causes a strange neurological illness. The medical mystery was recently highlighted in the New York Times and you can find more information on the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) website as well.

The MDH is investigating a cluster of neurological illnesses in workers at a pork slaughtering facility in Austin, Minnesota. To date Minnesota has identified 12 people that share similar symptoms and workplace exposures. The illnesses are characterized by changes in sensation and weakness in the limbs. MDH is working closely with clinicians to identify other possible cases.

It's good to know that Minnesota has one of the strongest health departments and best-equipped laboratories in the country!

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Laurie's picture
Laurie says:

Another meat packer may have the same mysterious illness as his colleagues. Unlike the others he was not stationed near the high-powered air compressor system used to remove pig brain tissue at Quality Pork Processors, but he is still exposed to brain tissue. For a more extensive report see this Star Tribune article.

posted on Wed, 02/06/2008 - 3:32pm
Matthew's picture
Matthew says:

Unfortunately for those infected, the symptoms of the illness and the suspected vector point to a prion disease being a likely culprit. Prion diseases, caused by an infectious, abnormally folded protein are currently incurable and are only positively identified by post mortem dissection. Other prion diseases include Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) & Kuru in humans, chronic wasting syndrome in Deer & Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease).

posted on Thu, 02/14/2008 - 12:30pm
Laurie's picture
Laurie says:

Hi Matthew--
I hadn't heard about prions being suspected as a cause in these cases. It is an interesting hypothesis and I can understand the thought process. Is this your correlation or is there evidence out there supporting a prion disease?

posted on Tue, 02/19/2008 - 9:12am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

make sure you cook your food gooood!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

posted on Mon, 02/18/2008 - 2:17pm
LEE's picture
LEE says:

So the illness wouldn't effect us as long as you cook your pork throughly? The workers who were exposed to the illness they're doing alright now? Did they find out why or how the illness started?

posted on Wed, 02/27/2008 - 9:49am
Laurie's picture
Laurie says:


I don't think you have to worry about getting this mysterious disease from eating pork. Those who are sick all worked at the pork processing plant. A report from the MN Department of Health website states:

"MDH continues to investigate to determine the cause for the illnesses. A leading hypothesis is that pig brain or other nerve tissue, removed by using pressurized air, somehow directly exposed workers. The workers developed an immune response to the exposure and in turn their own immune system cross-reacted with their own nervous system. This syndrome is being called progressive inflammatory neuropathy (PIN). The other hypothesis is that an infectious agent was present in the brain or nervous tissue and MDH continues to investigate this possibility as well."

posted on Wed, 02/27/2008 - 4:40pm
SHANEE's picture
SHANEE says:

a medical mystery ...that really creepy..imean we as humans are supposed to trust medical issues, and the sound of a "medical mystery" is really scary!

posted on Wed, 02/27/2008 - 10:02am
Smile's picture
Smile says:


posted on Thu, 03/06/2008 - 3:47pm
EEE's picture
EEE says:


posted on Fri, 03/21/2008 - 1:41pm
Laurie's picture
Laurie says:

Mayo Clinic doctors identified this disease as progressive inflammatory neuropathy (PIN). They presented their findings at the national American Academy of Neurology conference on Wednesday. A total of 17 cases have met the precise definition investigators are using for the disease, said Ruth Lynfield, Minnesota's state epidemiologist, who is heading the investigation.

After ruling out toxins and infectious agents, investigators are focusing on whether the workers' immune systems reacted to pig protein they inhaled from bits of brain tissue floating in the air around them.

For more information about this medical mystery and the theories researchers are looking into, go to this StarTribune article.

posted on Thu, 04/17/2008 - 11:55am
Marisol's picture
Marisol says:

I think this is very interesting of how pork is a cause of a new illness that approximately 25 people have had and are going through an operation.

posted on Wed, 10/15/2008 - 1:09pm

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