Cantaloupe illnesses, deaths may rise

September 29, 2011 (WASHINGTON)

So far, over a dozen deaths are being blamed on the tainted melon.

Now federal health officials are warning even more cases and possibly more deaths are expected in the coming weeks.

Shirley Thomas wants to be sure. Although she came to her doctor's office Thursday for a routine check-up, the senior citizen took no chances and stopped eating her favorite fruit, cantaloupes.

"I'm concerned because I'm already ill. There are a lot of things I can't eat," she told ABC7.

Authorities say tainted cantaloupes from Colorado have been linked to at least 16 deaths and 72 illnesses in nearly a half dozen states including Illinois. It's the worst multi-state outbreak in more than a decade.

Authorities say the fruit is infected with listeria, a more deadly food-born bacteria similar to salmonella and e. coli.

Health officials are concerned the number of those affected by the contaminated cantaloupe will rise because the illness that generally only sickens the elderly, pregnant women and others with compromised immune systems can lay dormant for weeks before causing any illness.

"Once the bacteria gets in the bloodstream, it can cause a more serious infection. So patients can have a flu-like illness but just not get any better," said Dr. Reuben Nichols, general internist.

Signs of listeria infection can vary but include flu-like symptoms of fever, diarrhea, and vomiting.

It was after an 82-year-old woman from suburban Cook County was sickened by tainted fruit that local health departments began to warn the public.

"We're very fortunate that there have not been any fatalities in Illinois, but we needed to make sure people were aware of it," said Sabrina Miller, Illinois Department of Public Health spokesperson.

The outbreak has been traced to Jensen Farms in Holly, Colorado which recalled the contaminated cantaloupes earlier this month. In cooperation with that recall, Aldi's grocery voluntarily removed the Frontera Produce-Colorado Fresh Rocky Ford cantaloupes from their produce section.

Shoppers are being urged to wash their hands and melons before cutting them. In the meantime, Tonnette Johnson isn't ready to give up on her favorite fruit.

"We're going to watch the news and make sure it's OK. When you guys say it's OK, we're going to do that," said Johnson.

The Food and Drug Administration, which investigates food-borne outbreaks, has not released any additional details on how the contamination may have happened. The agency's investigation is ongoing.

Aldi's grocery replaced the tainted fruit with cantaloupes grown in other geographic regions. Experts are telling the public to follow food safety rules, but when in doubt they recommend throwing the fruit out.

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