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Lessons Learned From Cantaloupe-Listeria Outbreak

CDC report confirms potential for fresh produce to cause severe foodborne illness

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 5 (HealthDay News) -- Of all the dangerous bacteria lurking in foods, perhaps the most deadly is listeria, and the lesson from a 2011 outbreak is to always handle food safely, U.S. health officials say.

In the summer and fall of 2011, cantaloupes contaminated with listeria sickened 147 people in 28 states, killing 33 of them. That listeria outbreak -- the deadliest in a decade -- was unusual because listeria is rarely associated with fresh produce, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Although rare, listeria is an important public-health issue because of its severity, said report co-author Benjamin Silk, a CDC epidemiologist in the division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases. "Nearly all people who have listeria infections diagnosed are hospitalized, and about one in five die," Silk said.

The new report, published Sept. 5 in the New England Journal of Medicine, highlights lessons learned from an investigation into the 2011 outbreak.

The authors found that for the 145 people for whom complete records were available, all but two were hospitalized and nearly one-quarter died.

Most of those sickened were in their 60s or older and suffered from other illnesses. But there also were seven pregnancy-associated infections among four women and three infants. One of the four women miscarried because of the infection.

Overall, this is typical of the general consequences of a listeria outbreak, one expert said.

"Listeria is only a problem for immuno-compromised folks and pregnant women, but in those cases people can and do get quite ill and almost all are hospitalized," said Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

"In this case, pregnant women were a small percentage, though they are usually more," he said. "Outbreaks are limited as healthy people don't generally get ill."

The contaminated cantaloupes were traced to a Colorado grower, and while the exact cause of the contamination isn't known, unsanitary conditions were likely the culprit, according to the report.

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