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Food Poisoning, Deaths Reported

Sept. 18, 2002 -- Food-related infections recently have killed at least 13 people in five states, by some estimates. Health officials say contaminated food is the likely cause, but they haven't been able to track down the source yet.

The CDC's estimates are lower: "Currently, we have 24 confirmed cases and three deaths in this investigation," says Katie Hoskins, spokeswoman for the CDC. "Two deaths occurred in New York City, and one in Michigan. The states that have confirmed cases are Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Connecticut, and Michigan."

"The investigation is ongoing," Hoskins tells WebMD. "No food source has been identified yet."

However, listeriosis -- a serious infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes -- is being cited as the cause. The CDC recognizes listeria infection as an important public health problem in the U.S.

Pregnant women are about 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get listeria infection, according to the CDC. About one-third of all cases occur during pregnancy.

When a pregnant woman gets a listeria infection, she usually has only mild, flu-like symptoms. But infections during pregnancy can have serious problems for the infant -- including premature delivery, infection in the newborn, or even stillbirth.

Elderly adults and others with weakened immune systems are also at risk for listeria infection.

Pregnant women rarely hear about listeria from their doctors, says Amos Grunebaum, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist who specializes in high-risk pregnancies.

Grunebaum is director of clinical maternal-fetal medicine at the New York Presbyterian Hospital and an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the Cornell University-Weill Medical College in New York. He is also co-author of Dr. Ruth's Pregnancy Guide for Couples.

"It's something that the average obstetrician doesn't usually see in the office, because it's relatively rare," he tells WebMD.

But when it does occur, the risks to the fetus are serious, Grunebaum says. And listeria infection itself is very preventable, he adds. "There are simple precautions a woman can take while she's pregnant to decrease her risk. It's a very short list of foods that she needs to stay away from. It's clear and easy to follow."

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