A deadly outbreak of listeria in six states has been linked to contaminated deli meat and cheese, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday.
People at high risk of severe illness from listeria infection — such as pregnant people, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems — should not eat meat or cheese from any deli counter without first reheating it “steaming hot,” the agency suggests.
A total of 16 people have been infected, and 13 have been hospitalized, according to reports from six states. One death was reported in Maryland; another person became ill while pregnant and lost their baby, the CDC said in a statement.
To date, seven listeria infections has been reported in New York, three in Maryland, two in Illinois, two in Massachusetts, one in California and one in New Jersey. Those infected ranged in age from from 38 to 92, with an average age of 74. Over half of those sickened were men.
Most of the people identified in the outbreak so far are of Eastern European descent or speak Russian, the CDC said, adding that the agency is still investigating reasons for why the outbreak appears to be disproportionately affecting this population.
However, some infected people who got sick could have recovered without medical care, and thus their cases have gone unreported. “The true number of sick people in this outbreak is likely higher than the number reported, and the outbreak may not be limited to the states with known illnesses,” the CDC added.
In interviewing those sickened, CDC investigators found that five of the seven people in New York purchased sliced deli meat or cheese from at least one location of NetCost Market, a chain of stores selling international foods. However, that is not the only location of the illness, the CDC said, as people sickened in other states reported buying meats or cheeses from other delis.
Deli counters and food processing facilities can be a common source of listeria infection, the CDC said, as listeria can easily spread between food and equipment or surfaces and can be hard to remove.
If you have purchased deli cheese or meat, the agency recommends a careful cleaning of your refrigerator — and any containers or surfaces the meat or cheese may have touched — with hot, soapy water.
“Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any symptoms of severe Listeria illness after eating meat or cheese from a deli,” the CDC said.
Symptoms of listeria usually occur within four weeks of infection but can take as long as 70 days to appear. In some cases, the first signs of infection are diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms. Typical symptoms that follow include headache, stiff neck, fever, muscle pain, confusion, loss of balance and convulsions.
Who’s most at risk
Listeria is the third leading cause of death from food poisoning in the United States, according to the CDC, and is especially dangerous for anyone older than age 65, with a weakened immune system, or pregnant.
Pregnant people are especially at risk. According to the CDC, they are 10 times more likely to get a listeria infection, and the odds are even higher for Hispanic pregnant people, who are 24 times more likely to get listeria.
Pregnant people typically experience only flu-like symptoms, but the danger to a developing fetus is high. Infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, premature delivery or stillbirth. Newborns with listeria infection can develop blood infections, meningitis, and other serious and potentially life-threatening complications.
A listeria infection is treated with antibiotics.