The news is frenzied with reports of the recent crop of Listeria-infected cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colorado. With 16 dead and 72 people reportedly sick from eating the melons, it’s already become the deadliest food-borne outbreak in the last decade.
But don’t start to panic and incinerate all your melons just yet. Here’s a handy guide to what, exactly, Listeria is and what you can do to make sure you don’t get sick.
What is Listeria?
In short, Listeria is a bacteria named after Joseph Lister, sterile surgery pioneer and the namesake of Listerine mouthwash. There are six types of Listeria, but the one in question, Listeria monocytogenes or L. monocytogenes, is found most commonly in soil and animal feces, but will hitch a ride on any food it comes in contact with.
When someone consumes food that has been tainted with Listeria, they can get Listeriosis, a bacterial infection that usually is isolated to the gastrointestinal tract, but can also infect the heart. If untreated, the bacteria can spread and become meningitis, which attacks the central nervous system.
What are the symptoms of Listeriosis?
Listeriosis can rear its ugly head up to two months after someone has consumed tainted food, Reuters reports. This contrasts with E. coli and salmonella, which start to yield symptoms within days.
The most common symptoms of Listeriosis are fever, muscle aches, vomiting and diarrhea that lasts approximately one week.
OK, really, how bad is the threat?
Listeria is a relatively common bacterium according to Dr. Manny Alvarez, and there are approximately 1,600 cases of Listeriosis reported per year in the United States. Although the mortality rate for those infected is high (approximately 30%), it’s usually amongst pregnant women, newborn babies, the elderly and people with conditions that compromise their immune systems, such as AIDS and liver disease. People who fall into these categories are the only ones at serious risk.
Listeria is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and can be passed on to the unborn child, resulting in miscarriage and early labor. Pregnant women are advised not to eat unheated cold cuts and any raw meat for this reason.
How do you treat Listeriosis?
The majority of cases in healthy adults clear up on their own, but it can also be treated with antibiotics.
How do you avoid it?
Sticking to standard safe food handling practices is your best bet according to Discovery News. Keep vegetables and meats separate, wash your hands, utensils and all prep surfaces thoroughly, make sure to cook food through (use a meat thermometer if necessary), avoid unpasteurized dairy and store food at the right temperature.
Right now, experts for CNN suggest avoiding cantaloupes unless you’re sure they aren’t from Jensen Farms, but if you’re “in doubt, throw it out.” If you still want to eat your cantaloupes, be sure to wash the rind thoroughly before you cut into the fruit (the prevailing theory is that the fruit inside becomes tainted when cutting it exposes bacteria on the rind to the flesh inside), store it below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and don’t eat bruised or cut fruit.
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