Outbreak: What Makes a Listeria Infection Fatal?


  • A Listeria outbreak has been announced after eight people in four states were affected and hospitalized, with one death.
  • Listeriosis can be lethal to people with weak immune systems, such as pregnant women and elderly people, since it can affect the central nervous system.
  • People at high risk for Listeria infection are advised to be cautious when eating and handling deli meats and soft cheeses.

Health officials have reported one death caused by a Listeria outbreak in connection to sliced deli meats and cheeses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the outbreak on Wednesday, April 17. A total of eight people were affected and hospitalized in four states (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan), with one death in Michigan.

Listeriosis is caused by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes and is the deadliest foodborne illness. A serious infection is rare but particularly lethal. The CDC reports an estimated 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths from listeriosis in the U.S. each year.

While Listeria isn’t normally dangerous for most people, it usually affects people with weakened immune systems — such as pregnant women and older adults. This makes it lethal for them since they already have a reduced ability to fight off infections, explained Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore.

Aside from this, Listeria can also affect people’s central nervous system, leading to life-threatening complications such as the inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) or the brain itself (encephalitis).

The current patients reported eating sliced deli meats and cheeses before becoming ill. Samples of deli meat in various stores were found to have contained the outbreak strain of Listeria, though a common supplier has not yet been identified.

The CDC clarified that they are not prohibiting people from eating deli products. However, they are advising people at high risk for Listeria infection to be cautious when eating and handling deli meats and soft cheeses.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) warned that pregnant women are 10 times more likely to contract listeriosis than the general population. The infection poses a risk to both the mother and the fetus, potentially causing pre-term labor, stillbirth, or miscarriage.

Pregnant women, adults aged 65 and over, and those with weakened immune system are thus advised to avoid foods more likely to contain Listeria bacteria. These include cold cuts, lunch meats, hot dogs, and other deli meats, unless they are heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius) or steaming hot. People in this group should also avoid consuming soft cheeses unless they are labeled to be made with pasteurized milk.

Some of the symptoms of Listeria infection include fever, nausea, headache, stiff neck, muscle aches, diarrhea, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions.


Source: LiveScience

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