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Listeriosis, a serious infection caused by eating food
contaminated with the bacterium Listeria
monocytogenes, has recently
become an important public health problem in the United
States. The disease affects primarily pregnant women,
newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems. It can
be avoided by following a few simple recommendations.
How great is
the risk for listeriosis?
In the United States, an estimated 1,850 persons become
seriously ill with listeriosis each year. Of these, 425
They are about 20 times more likely than other healthy
adults to get listeriosis. About one-third of
listeriosis cases happen during pregnancy.
Newborns rather than the pregnant women
themselves suffer the serious effects of
infection in pregnancy.
weakened immune systems
- Persons with cancer, diabetes, or kidney disease
- Persons with AIDS
They are almost 300 times more likely to get listeriosis
than people with normal immune systems.
- Persons who take glucocorticosteroid medications
- The elderly
Healthy adults and children occasionally get infected
with Listeria, but they rarely become seriously ill.
Listeria get into food?
Listeria monocytogenes is found in soil and water.
Vegetables can become contaminated from the soil or from
manure used as fertilizer. Animals can carry the
bacterium without appearing ill and can contaminate foods
of animal origin such as meats and dairy products. The
bacterium has been found in a variety of raw foods, such
as uncooked meats and vegetables, as well as in processed
foods that become contaminated after processing, such as
soft cheeses and cold cuts at the deli counter.
Unpasteurized (raw) milk or foods made from unpasteurized
milk may contain the bacterium.
Persons at risk can prevent Listeria infection by
avoiding certain high-risk foods and by handling food
Listeria is killed by pasteurization, and heating
procedures used to prepare ready-to-eat processed meats
should be sufficient to kill the bacterium. However,
unless good manufacturing practices are followed,
contamination can occur after processing.
How do you get
You get listeriosis by eating food contaminated with
Listeria. Babies can be born with listeriosis if their
mothers eat contaminated food during pregnancy. Although
healthy persons may consume contaminated foods without
becoming ill, those at increased risk for infection can
probably get listeriosis after eating food contaminated
with even a few bacteria. Persons at risk can prevent
Listeria infection by avoiding certain high-risk foods
and by handling food properly.
How do you know
if you have listeriosis?
A person with listeriosis usually has fever, muscle
aches, and sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms such as
nausea or diarrhea. If infection spreads to the nervous
system, symptoms such as headache, stiff neck, confusion,
loss of balance, or convulsions can occur.
Infected pregnant women may experience only a mild,
flu-like illness; however, infection during pregnancy can
lead to premature delivery, infection of the newborn, or
There is no routine screening test for susceptibility to
listeriosis during pregnancy, as there is for rubella and
some other congenital infections. If you have symptoms
such as fever or stiff neck, consult your doctor. A blood
or spinal fluid test (to cultivate the bacteria) will
show if you have listeriosis. During pregnancy, a blood
test is the most reliable way to find out if your
symptoms are due to listeriosis.
The general guidelines recommended for the prevention of
listeriosis are similar to those used to help prevent
other foodborne illnesses, such as salmonellosis.
How can you
reduce your risk for listeriosis?
Cook thoroughly raw
food from animal sources, such as beef, pork, or poultry.
Wash raw vegetables
thoroughly before eating.
Keep uncooked meats
separate from vegetables and from cooked foods and
(unpasteurized) milk or foods made from raw milk.
Wash hands, knives, and
cutting boards after handling uncooked foods.
persons at high risk, such as pregnant women and persons
with weakened immune systems:
In addition to
the recommendations listed above:
Avoid soft cheeses such
as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican -style
cheese. (Hard cheesed, processed cheeses, cream cheese,
cottage cheese, or yogurt need not be
Cook until steaming hot
left-over foods or ready-to-eat foods, such as hot dogs,
Although the risk of
listeriosis associated with foods from deli
counters is relatively low, pregnant women and
immunosupressed persons may choose to avoid these foods
or thoroughly reheat cold cuts before eating.
When infection occurs during pregnancy, antibiotics given
promptly to the pregnant woman can often prevent
infection of the fetus or newborn. Babies with
listeriosis receive the same antibiotics as adults,
although a combination of antibiotics is often used until
physicians are certain of the diagnosis. Even with prompt
treatment, some infections result in death. This is
particularly likely in the elderly and in persons with
other serious medical problems.
What is being
Government agencies and the food industry have taken
steps to reduce contamination of food by the Listeria
bacterium. The Food and Drug Administration and the U. S.
Department of Agriculture monitor food regularly. When a
processed food is found to be contaminated, food
monitoring and plant inspection are intensified, and if
necessary, the implicated food is recalled.
The National Center for Infectious Diseases (NCID) is
studying listeriosis in several states to help measure
the impact of prevention activities and recognize trends
in disease occurrence. NCID also assists local health
departments in investigating outbreaks. Early detection
and reporting of outbreaks of listeriosis to local and
state health departments can help identify sources of
infection and prevent more cases of the disease.
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