An outbreak of listeria that has been traced to cantaloupes shipped from a farm between July 29 and September 10 to 25 states has so far been linked to the deaths of 13 people and the illnesses of 72 people. The deaths of three more people are being investigated as possibly also caused by listeria poisoning.

Listeria most commonly sickens people who are older, have compromised immune systems or are pregnant. Of people who become ill after ingesting listeria, one in five could die. The median age of people sickened by the recent outbreak is 78.

The most recent outbreak is the deadliest since an outbreak of listeria poisoning in 1998. According to USA Today, in 1998, 21 people died from listeria poisoning that was linked to hot dogs and may also have been present in deli meats made by Bil Mar Foods, which is a subsidiary of Sara Lee Corp.

The numbers of deaths and injuries in the recent outbreak may rise because listeria can sometimes incubate for a month or longer in a susceptible person’s body before causing them to fall ill. The symptoms of listeria include fever, nausea, diarrhea and aching muscles. People sickened by listeria may also become incapacitated or unable to speak.

The family of an 87-year-old man killed by listeria poisoning traced to recalled cantaloupes has sued the farm where the cantaloupes originated, Jensen Farms in Colorado. People who may have a cantaloupe of the Rocky Ford brand from these farms are urged not to eat them and to clean and sanitize any surface areas the fruit may have touched, such as cutting boards, cutlery and refrigerator surfaces.

Source: USA Today, “Cantaloupe outbreak is deadliest in a decade,” Associated Press, Sept. 28, 2011