Public officials say that it appears that 16 people so far may have died from illnesses attributed to tainted cantaloupes grown in Colorado. The outbreak of listeria from the contaminated fruit has led some to call it the deadliest such occurrence involving food products in the last several years.
Thirteen deaths from listeria were verified by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), with a total of 72 people becoming sick from eating tainted cantaloupes in several states. Officials nationwide are also looking into whether the deaths of three other people can be traced to the same cause.
The number of deaths was already higher than the death toll following the peanut salmonella outbreak approximately three years ago, which claimed nine lives.
A listeria outbreak in 1998 involving tainted hot dogs as well as other possibly tainted deli meats marketed by Bil Mar Foods caused 21 deaths. According to USA Today, another outbreak in 1985 involving Mexican-style soft cheese caused 52 deaths. Health officials say that listeria is a more deadly pathogen than E. coli or salmonella, although those illnesses are more common or better-known to the public.
Listeria most often causes severe illness or death in pregnant women, the elderly, or individuals with already weakened immune systems. Approximately 20 percent of those who get the illness die, and the median age of all those who get the illness is 78.
Because there is usually a delay in the symptoms of listeria appearing, health officials expected the number of illnesses and deaths reported to grow in the next few weeks. After food tainted with listeria is consumed, a person can get sick as long as four weeks later. Common symptoms include gastrointestinal problems, fever and aches.
Food-related illnesses can be very serious, particularly for those with vulnerable health, and should not be taken lightly.
Source: USA Today, “Cantaloupe outbreak is deadliest in a decade,” Sept. 28, 2011