March 27, 2008
Listeriosis, a serious infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, has recently been recognized as an important public health problem in the United States. The disease affects primarily persons of advanced age, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems. However, persons without these risk factors can also rarely be affected. The risk may be reduced by following a few simple recommendations.
A person with listeriosis 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, infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth, premature delivery, or infection of the newborn.
In the United States, an estimated 2,500 persons become seriously ill with listeriosis each year. Of these, 500 die. At increased risk are:
Healthy adults and children occasionally get infected with Listeria, but they rarely become seriously ill.
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.
Listeria is killed by pasteurization and cooking; however, in certain ready-to-eat foods such as hot dogs and deli meats, contamination may occur after cooking but before packaging.
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.
The general guidelines recommended for the prevention of listeriosis are similar to those used to help prevent other foodborne illnesses, such as salmonellosis. In addition, there are specific recommendations for persons at high risk for listeriosis.
Recommendations for persons at high risk, such as pregnant women and persons with weakened immune systems, in addition to the recommendations listed above:
There is no routine screening test for 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 risk of an individual person developing Listeria infection after consumption of a contaminated product is very small. If you have eaten a contaminated product and do not have any symptoms, we do not recommend that you have any tests or treatment, even if you are in a high-risk group. However, if you are in a high-risk group, have eaten the contaminated product, and within 2 months become ill with fever or signs of serious illness, you should contact your physician and inform him or her about this exposure.
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.
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 Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases (CCID) is studying listeriosis in several states to help measure the impact of prevention activities and recognize trends in disease occurrence. CCID 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.