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Listeria Outbreak Raises Concerns

Caramel Apple

People wanting a sweet treat instead got a nasty food borne illness. More than 30 people in the U.S. have contracted listeriosis, believed to have come from caramel apples made by at least three different companies. "Symptoms of Listeria infection include fever, vomiting, diarrhea and weakness," says Sankar Swaminathan, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases for University of Utah Health. "In some cases, like those involving the very old, very young, or those with compromised immune systems, listeriosis can cause severe complications, or even death." So far, five of those sickened in this recent Listeria outbreak have died.

Listeriosis is caused by Listeria bacteria found commonly in in soil and water, and in some animals. Apples are not considered a common source of listeriosis, though any food item that is not prepared or stored properly has the potential of being tainted. "In the case of produce, all of it should be thoroughly washed before being eaten or used in cooking," says Swaminathan, "Listeria are cold tolerant, so even if food is being stored in the fridge the bacteria can continue to grow."

While listeriosis is a serious health risk to anyone who comes in contact with it, it is especially dangerous for pregnant women. "Pregnancy makes women more susceptible to the Listeria bacteria," says Swaminathan. "They are especially vulnerable in the third trimester when their immune system is somewhat suppressed."

The first symptoms of listeriosis present in pregnant women like they do in any other patient: headaches, fever, muscle and back pain. However, the complications can affect the pregnancy. "Miscarriage, premature delivery, and fetal death are all possibilities," says Swaminathan. "In roughly 22% percent of pregnant listeriosis patients the infant is lost as a result."

Listeriosis should be avoided, and proper storage and cooking of foods is key. When in doubt? Don't eat it. "This is why we tell pregnant women not to eat soft cheese, or other unpasteurized items. If there is a chance Listeria bacteria is present, it is not a risk worth taking," says Swaminathan. . "Make sure all meats are cooked to the proper temperature so that any bacteria are killed."

If you suspect you may have contracted listeriosis, see your doctor immediately. "We can determine if Listeria is present by culturing blood or other specimens, and begin treatment early" says Swaminathan. Treatment involves antibiotics. "The sooner you start on antibiotics with listeriosis the better the possible outcome," he says.