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Up to 16 killed by US outbreak of listeria

A batch of contanimated cantaloupes from Colorado has been blamed for 72 infections, and at least 13 deaths.

Image: Danny Johnston/AP

US HEALTH OFFICIALS say as many as 16 people have died from possible listeria illnesses traced to Colorado cantaloupes, the deadliest food outbreak in more than a decade.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 72 illnesses – 13 of them fatal – can be 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 — including newly confirmed deaths in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas — 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 said yesterday it had confirmed two deaths in Texas and one death each in in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Last week the CDC reported two deaths in Colorado, four deaths in New Mexico, one in Oklahoma and one in Maryland.

New Mexico officials said yesterday 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.

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. 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 one in five who contract the disease can die.

The death toll may rise in coming weeks, as it can take four weeks or more for a person to fall ill after eating food contaminated with listeria.

The outbreak has been traced to Jensen Farms in Holly, Colorado, which recalled the tainted cantaloupes earlier this month.

Unlike many pathogens, listeria bacteria can grow at room temperatures and even refrigerator temperatures.

About 800 cases of listeria are found in the United States each year, according to CDC, and there usually are three or four outbreaks. Most of these are traced to deli meat and soft cheeses, where listeria is most common.

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Associated Press

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