Botulism, Latin for ‘sausage disease,’ was first recognised in 1735 as a form of food-poisoning in German sausages. It is caused by Clostridium botulinum, which produce a neurotoxin that is the most poisonous natural substance known (and has even been developed as a biological weapon).
Fortunately, C. botulinum is usually quietly domiciled in soil, streams, and lakes, and ventures into the food-chain only on occasion. It is typically found in canned foods where the bacteria propagate at their leisure, using their toxin to breakdown energy supplies.
Proper food preparation (i.e., heat) can destroy the toxin. But if it is not destroyed, even low doses can produce double-vision, difficulty breathing, and even paralysis. Infants are particularly susceptible to C. botulinum infection, as the internal flora and acidic content of their intestines is undeveloped. (Honey is a common transmission pathway for infants, and should be avoided.)
But C. botulinum has a helpful side as well. It turns out paralysis isn’t such a bad thing – if you’ve got wrinkles. Injecting minute quantities of botulinum toxin into facial muscles paralyzes them, and diminishes the appearance of aging lines.
Botulinum toxin also has a number of more serious medical uses. It can alleviate muscle spasms, chronic lower back pain, migraine headaches, crossed-eyes, and even excessive sweating!
So, while the sausage disease can unquestionably bring out the wurst in people, sometimes it is precisely what the doctor ordered.