Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/30/2011 3:35:41 PM ET 2011-09-30T19:35:41

An ongoing outbreak of listeria infections from contaminated cantaloupe has now sickened 84 people, including at least 15 who have died in eight states, federal health officials reported Friday.

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The rising number of deaths and illnesses in people who ate cantaloupes from Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo., has been expected by health officials. Listeria infections can have a long incubation period of a few weeks to two months, so additional cases of illness could be reported through October and possibly longer.

This is the deadliest outbreak of food poisoning in the United States since 1998, when hot dogs and deli meats contaminated with listeria killed 21 people.

More deaths and illnesses may be confirmed as state health officials receive definitive laboratory results. Deaths include five in New Mexico, three in Colorado, two in Texas and one each in Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

The most illnesses have been reported in Colorado, with 17 cases, and New Mexico, with 13 cases.

Jensen Farms recalled its entire 2011 harvest of Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes, more than 300,000 cases, or between 1.5 million and 4.5 million whole melons on Sept. 14, a company spokeswoman said. The cantaloupes were shipped to at least 28 states between July 29 and Sept. 10, and they were sold in large retail stores, including Safeway and Walmart.

On Friday, the FDA updated the list to include three more states that received potentially contaminated cantaloupe: Indiana, Louisiana and Wisconsin. That's in addition to Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming. There is no indication of foreign distribution at this time.

The cantaloupes have the potential to be contaminated with four outbreak-related strains of listeria monocytogenes, bacteria that than can cause severe illness and death, mostly in older people, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women.

Federal Food and Drug Administration officials still have not determined how the cantaloupe became contaminated. They have found bacteria on fruit and equipment tied to the Colorado farm, but no root cause of the outbreak, a spokesman said.

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So far, most of the illnesses have occurred in people older than age 60. Of 79 ill people with available information, 78 were hospitalized because of the severity of their infections. Two of the victims were pregnant and their cases are being monitored, health officials said.

Cantaloupes that are not grown and shipped by Jensen Farms are safe to eat, health officials said. Consumers can check with their grocers to determine the source of any melons. If they don't know, the fruit should be tossed.

Symptoms of listeria can include fever, diarrhea, nausea and muscle aches, sometimes severe. People in high-risk groups should seek medical attention for any symptoms within two months of eating suspect cantaloupe.

About 800 laboratory-confirmed cases of listeria infection, known as listeriosis, are reported each year in the United States. Foods that typically cause outbreaks include deli meats, hot dogs and Mexican-style soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk.

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