Listeria outbreak may claim more victims
Cantaloupe is often the source of outbreaks, however. Frieden said CDC had identified 10 other cantaloupe outbreaks in the last decade, most of them from salmonella.
Listeria is more deadly than well-known pathogens like salmonella and E. coli, though those outbreaks generally cause many more illnesses.
Twenty-one people died in an outbreak of listeria poisoning in 1998 traced to contaminated hot dogs and possibly deli meats made by Bil Mar Foods, a subsidiary of Sara Lee Corp. Another large listeria outbreak, in 1985, killed 52 people and was linked to Mexican-style soft cheese.
Listeria generally only sickens the elderly, pregnant women and others with compromised immune systems. The CDC said the median age of those sickened is 78 and that 1 in 5 who contract the disease can die from it. Symptoms include fever and muscle aches, often with other gastrointestinal symptoms.
Unlike many pathogens, listeria bacteria can grow at room temperatures and even refrigerator temperatures. It is hardy and can linger long after the source of the contamination is gone - health officials say people who may have had the contaminated fruit in their kitchens should clean and sanitize any surfaces it may have touched.
The CDC said Tuesday that 13 deaths are linked to the tainted fruit. State and local officials say they are investigating three additional deaths that may be connected.
The death toll released by the CDC Tuesday surpassed the number of deaths linked to an outbreak of salmonella in peanuts almost three years ago. Nine people died in that outbreak. The CDC reported four deaths in New Mexico, two deaths each in Colorado and Texas and one death each in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Maryland.
New Mexico officials said Tuesday they are investigating a fifth death, while health authorities in Kansas and Wyoming said they too are investigating additional deaths possibly linked to the tainted fruit.
The CDC reported the 72 illnesses and deaths in 18 states. Cases of listeria were reported in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The most illnesses were reported in Colorado, which has seen 15 sickened. Fourteen illnesses were reported in Texas, 10 in New Mexico and eight in Oklahoma.
While most healthy adults can consume listeria with no ill effects, it can kill the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It is also dangerous to pregnant women because it easily passes through to the fetus. The CDC's Frieden said that two of those sickened were pregnant women but they have since recovered.
Would you like to contribute to this story? Join the discussion.