St. Anthony's fire
Ergotism is the effect of long-term ergot poisoning, classically due to the ingestion of the alkaloids produced by the Claviceps purpurea fungus which infects rye and other cereals, and more recently by the action of a number of ergoline-based drugs. It is also known as ergotoxicosis or ergot poisoning. more...
The toxic ergoline derivatives are found in ergot-based drugs (such as methylergometrine, ergotamine or, previously, ergotoxine). The deleterious side-effects occur either under high dose or when moderate doses interact with potentiators such as azithromycin.
Classically, eating cereals or cereal-based products contaminated with the fungus Claviceps purpurea also caused ergotism.
Finally, the alkaloids can also pass through lactation from mother to child, causing ergotism in infants.
The symptoms can be roughly divided into convulsive symptoms and gangreneous symptoms.
Convulsive symptoms include diarrhea, paresthesias, itching, seizures, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Usually the gastrointestinal effects precede CNS effects. As well as seizures there can be hallucinations and mental effects including mania or psychosis. The convulsive symptoms are caused by clavine alkaloids.
The dry gangrene is a result of vasoconstriction induced by the ergotamine-ergocristine alkaloids of the fungus. It affects the more poorly vascularized distal structures, such as the fingers and toes. Symptoms include desquamation, weak peripheral pulse, loss of peripheral sensation, edema and ultimately the death and loss of affected tissues.
Epidemics of the disease were identified throughout history, though the references in classical writers are inconclusive. Rye, the main vector for transmitting ergotism, was not grown much around the Mediterranean. When Fuchs separated references to ergotism from erysipelas and other afflictions he found the earliest reference to ergotism in the Annales Xantenses for the year 857: "a Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death." In the Middle Ages the gangrenous poisoning was known as ignis sacer ("holy fire") or "Saint Anthony's fire", named for the 4th century hermit of Egypt. The 12th century chronicler Geoffroy du Breuil of Vigeois recorded the mysterious outbreaks in the Limousin region of France, where the gangrenous form of ergotism was associated with the local Saint Martial as much as Saint Anthony. The blight, named from the cock's spur it forms on grasses, was identified and named by Denis Dodart who reported the relation between ergotized rye and bread poisoning in a letter to the French Royal Academy of Sciences in 1676 (John Ray mentioning ergot for the first time in English the next year), but "ergotism" in this modern sense was first recorded in 1853. Research by Linnda Caporael (1976) suggests that many of the people whose accusations resulted in the 1692 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts were genuinely suffering hallucinations and other symptoms of convulsive ergotism. Similar eruptions of ergotism also occurred in Essex and Fairfield counties in Connecticut that damp and cool season, though in Connecticut no one went to the stake. Notable epidemics of ergotism, at first seen as a punishment from God, occurred up into the 19th century. Fewer outbreaks have occurred since then, because in developed countries rye is carefully monitored. When milled the ergot is reduced to a red powder, obvious in lighter grasses but easy to miss in dark rye flour. The last reported outbreak in an industrialized country, which caused more than 200 cases and 4 deaths, occurred in 1951 in Pont St. Esprit, France. In less wealthy countries ergotism still occurs: there was an outbreak in Ethiopia in mid-2001 from contaminated barley. Whenever there is a combination of moist weather, cool temperatures, delayed harvest in lowland crops and rye consumption an outbreak is possible. Russia has been particularly afflicted.
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