ANCHORAGE — The black bear meat tasted delicious. Sean Sullivan didn’t know it would give him trichinosis.
“Like the best steak you’ve ever had,” said the 32-year-old oil platform worker from Nikiski.
It was early summer and Sullivan was at his remote cabin east of McGrath. There were a lot of black bears in the area, he said.
One day Sullivan was heading back to the cabin to sharpen a chain saw when he saw a bear trying to break in.
“I noticed a big black fuzzy thing halfway through the door,” he said.
Sullivan pulled out a pistol and shot the six-foot tall bear. He reported the killing to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Later he and a friend skinned the animal and stored the meat in freezer bags in the river to keep it cold.
For dinner he cooked some of the meat in a skillet with butter, pepper and garlic salt.
He ate the bear with peas and rice, sitting on the porch of a cabin with a view of the nearby Trimokish Hills.
Looking back, Sullivan said the meat seemed to be cooked to “something a little more than medium rare.”
“It obviously wasn’t enough,” he said.
That became clear six weeks later, when he started noticing uncharacteristic soreness in his legs and back.
Next came an upset stomach, flu-like symptoms and a high fever. He became sensitive to sound. His eyes hurt.
Then his wife found him in the bathtub in the middle of the night in the midst of a fever hallucination about snowmachine repair.
“I kept saying, ‘I’m trying to figure this out, I almost got it figured out,’” he said.
His wife had already figured out that it was time for Sullivan to get to a hospital.
At first, doctors thought he might have meningitis.
But then they started down a “strange line of questioning.”
Had he gone hunting recently? Had he shot any bears? Had he eaten them?
A diagnosis soon followed: Trichinosis.
It’s caused by eating raw or undercooked meat infected with the larvae of a worm called Trichinella, which reproduces and eventually travels through arteries to become cysts in muscle tissue.
The disease, most associated with pork, can cause a litany of symptoms from aching joints to swelling of the face and eyes and in serious cases can be fatal.
Worldwide, about 10,000 cases of trichinosis are recorded each year.
It the United States, the number has dropped from 400 per year on average in the 1940s to 20 or fewer today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That drop can be attributed to better sanitary practices in the pork industry and improved public awareness of the risks of eating raw or undercooked meat, the CDC says.
But while cases from eating domesticated animals have decreased, the number of people who get the infection from wild game has remained relatively steady.
And of the national cases, Alaska contributes a disproportionate number, says Louisa Castrodale of the state Division of Public Health’s Section of Epidemiology.
“People eat a lot of wild meat here,” she said.
In the past decade, bear meat has overtaken walrus as the primary culprit behind Alaska trichinosis cases, she said.
Sullivan’s diagnosis made him one of five cases of trichinosis statewide this year.
That’s the highest number since 2002, when seven cases were reported. In 2010 and 2011 zero cases were reported.
State epidemiologists are considering putting out a public heath bulletin on the illness for the first time since 2000, when an outbreak of five cases from bad fried bear meat prompted one, Castrodale said.
Trichinosis is easy to avoid, she said: Just make sure wild game is internally cooked to at least 160 degrees at the thickest part of the meat, as the CDC suggests.
“If you cook the meat you kill the parasite,” Castrodale said.
Sullivan said he wishes he would have cooked the meat a bit more thoroughly.
It took weeks for his body to fight off the infection, but by autumn he was back to shooting skeet and running Cooper Landing’s Skyline Trail.
His overall good health helped him recover from what doctors told him was a severe infection.
“If I wasn’t in the shape I was in and my body wasn’t as resilient, it probably would have been a different result,” he said. “I think by that (the doctor) meant death.”