Experts: Cincinnati native held by North Korea unlikely contracted botulism

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - The North Korean government said Otto Warmbier has been in a coma for nearly the entire time he was in their custody. They said he contracted botulism and slipped into a coma.

Director for the Center for Public Health Preparedness at the Cincinnati Health Department Dr. Steven Englender said he has never seen a case where botulism leads to a coma.

Medics were on standby as Otto Warmbier returned home late Tuesday night. He was carried off the plane and was taken to UC Medical Center where he is still receiving care.

[RELATED: Otto Warmbier, Cincinnati native held by North Korea, comes home in a coma]

The North Korean government said he contracted food borne botulism shortly after this court appearance in March 2016. According to the report, Warmbier fell into a coma after taking a sleeping pill.

Englender said the circumstances seem unlikely.

"It's very hard to tell and hard to believe that botulism is the cause of this," he said.

Englender said the rare and potentially deadly illness is caused by a bacteria typically ingested by eating improperly canned foods. It acts as a toxin to the nervous system where it paralyzes muscles.

"This is all nerve and muscle it's not brain function itself so you are alert. You are aware of what's happening, you just can't do anything about it," he said.

Englender said it's treated with an anti-toxin and doesn't typically last more than two months.

"You just don't get continuous exposure to the toxin, so whatever it's effects are it's not likely to be in play for an entire year," he said.

He said brain trauma is what causes a coma. Multiple tests are still needed to see exactly what happened to Warmbier while he was in North Korea.

His family and friends are hoping now that Warmbier is home he will be able to recover and return to a life he once knew.

"We've all heard stories of people awaking from comas after months or years, but that doesn't happen very frequently," said Englender.

UC Health just announced that a press conference will be held Thursday at 3:00 p.m. at Kresge Auditorium in the Medical Sciences Building. Physicians caring for Warmbier will address his medical condition at a press event.

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