The deaths of at least 78 newborns in the ongoing South African listeriosis outbreak has created one of those “teaching moments” about how especially dangerous the pathogen is to pregnant women.

And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is using the opportunity to warn Hispanic women that they need to pay special attention, not because they are any different than any other pregnant women, but because of some traditional ethnic foods they might eat.

As the largest listeriosis outbreak plays out, part of the anger South Africans have experienced focused on the fact that 78 of the first 180 deaths were of infants. Dr. June Thomas of the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said the high number of fatalities included newborns only 28 days old or younger.

Pregnant women and their unborn and newborn children are among the highest risk groups for listeriosis, which is a foodborne disease. FDA says Listeria can affect all races and ethnic groups, but pregnant women are about 10 times more likely than other people to contract listeriosis because of hormonal changes that affect the immune system during pregnancy.

A pregnant mother may pass Listeria to her unborn baby without even knowing it, because she doesn’t feel sick at all; yet the disease can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature labor, the delivery of a low birthweight infant, a wide range of health problems for a newborn, or infant death.

What is listeriosis?
Listeriosis is a foodborne illness caused by eating food contaminated with Listeria bacteria, which are often found in processed foods such as deli meats that have become contaminated, raw milk, and soft cheeses or other products made from unpasteurized milk.

Unlike many other foodborne bacteria, refrigeration does not stop Listeria from growing. Also, its can survive freezing temperatures. However, cooking and commercial processes like pasteurization do destroy Listeria. So, it is vital for pregnant women to avoid milk products like soft cheeses unless the label says they are made with pasteurized milk.

Pregnant Hispanic women are at greater risk
Pregnant Hispanic women can be at risk for listeriosis because of certain cultural dietary choices. In many Latin American cultures, it is common to eat soft cheeses like Queso Fresco, which are often made from raw, unpasteurized milk. Many women are simply unaware that soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk can contain potentially deadly bacteria.

In some Hispanic communities in the United States, people have been known to purchase raw milk and use it to make cheese, and then sell it door-to-door. Unlicensed vendors also sell it from carts. This cheese can sometimes also be found in small neighborhood stores.

Symptoms of listeriosis
Listeriosis can cause fever, chills, muscle aches, nausea, and diarrhea, or upset stomach. If the infection spreads to the nervous system, it can lead to headaches, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, or convulsions. In extreme cases, death or miscarriages can occur.

Preventing listeriosis in pregnant women
The FDA advises all pregnant women not to eat soft cheeses unless they are made with pasteurized milk and to follow these additional tips to avoid the illness:

Do NOT eat:

  • Soft cheeses (such as Feta, Brie, Camembert, Blue-veined cheeses, and Hispanic-style cheeses such as Queso Blanco, Queso Fresco, Asadero, and Panela) – unless they’re made with pasteurized milk
  • Hot dogs or luncheon meats, unless they’re reheated until steaming
  • Refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood – unless it’s in a cooked dish, such as a casserole

There have been 13 multistate listeriosis outbreaks in the U.S. since 2011.

Cheese, soft cheeses, Ricotta Salata cheeses, and soft raw cheese as a group were the food most often responsible for the outbreaks. Other sources of listeria outbreaks were cantaloupes, bean sprouts, caramel apples, ice cream, packaged salads, raw milk, frozen vegetables, and other dairy products.

The FDA has developed a Community Educator’s Guide, available in English and Spanish, to help teach the public about this serious foodborne risk.

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