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29 Deaths Reported in U.S. From Listeria in Tainted Cantaloupes

Editor’s note: On Dec. 8, the CDC issued its final update for the listeria outbreak. There were 30 deaths, and a woman pregnant at the time of illness had a miscarriage. A total of 146 people in 28 states were infected.

Nov. 4, 2011 -- With 29 adult deaths, the ongoing outbreak of listeria food poisoning from tainted cantaloupe is the deadliest listeria outbreak in U.S. history.

In the 1985 listeria outbreak linked to Mexican-style cheese, there were 18 adult and 10 infant deaths. However, there were also 20 miscarriages due to listeria -- far more than the single miscarriage reported in the current outbreak.

There were 142 cases in the 1985 outbreak. The current outbreak stands at 139 cases and counting.

Listeria is a bacterium that causes a condition called listeriosis. Listeriosis can cause lethal or disabling encephalitis and meningitis, usually in older people or those with weakened immune systems. Listeria can also cause fatal fetal infections in pregnant women.

New case reports are still coming in to the CDC. That's because of reporting delays -- and listeriosis symptoms may appear up to two months after infection.

The 29 deaths in the current outbreak are just the tip of the iceberg. The CDC estimates that listeria kills 255 Americans each year. Most cases are never linked to an official outbreak.

That puts listeria third on the list of killer food-borne illnesses in the U.S. With an estimated 378 deaths a year, salmonella tops the list. Second is toxoplasma, killing an estimated 327 people a year. Overall, food-borne bugs kill more than 3,000 Americans per year and send nearly 128,000 to the hospital.

Of course, not everybody gets hospitalized. Every year in the U.S., there are 47.8 million illnesses caused by tainted food.

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