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Are you reading this at breakfast while enjoying at tasty slice of cantaloupe? Better put the spoon down. You could be ingesting a food-born illness that kills 25% of the people it infects! More dangerous than salmonella or botulism, Listeria sickens thousands of US citizens every year and causes hundreds of fatalities.

In fact, as recently as 2011, Listeria-infected cantaloupe killed 29 people, the deadliest food-related epidemic in 90 years. So maybe you should stick with farm-fresh milk and cereal. Uh-oh, wrong move -- unpasteurized milk is a common route of infection. Maybe a cheese sandwich? Forget that -- in 2012 a cheese-related epidemic put 14 victims into the hospitals and killed three. Because food products are often shipped long distances, Listeria could be waiting for you in half a dozen places in your pantry and refrigerator. In 2002 over fifty people in nine US states were infected from deli-style turkey.

Even with exhaustive DNA screening and culturing of produce, Listeria-contaminated food can easily be missed. Days to weeks after ingestion of less that 1000 bacteria, you might develop fever, vomiting, diarrhea. Plan on a delayed diagnosis, since the illness can initially resemble a typical stomach flu with no special clinical features.Timely antibiotics can be life-saving here, although they are seldom recommended for these symptoms. As the infection worsens, you may develop headache and confusion while Listeriosis progresses to meningitis, seizures and brain damage. Pregnant women are at special risk for septic abortions. Once inside your cells, Listeria monocytogenes continues to reproduce, actually assembling molecular actin needles that punch through cell membranes into neighboring cells to spread the infection.

The disease got its name from the 17th century English surgeon Joseph Lister who habitually washed his hands in carbolic acid before performing operations. Why Listeria was named after him is a mystery since he had absolutely nothing to do with the discovery of the germ. However, his sterile technique is good advice for those who want to avoid food born illness -- pasteurized milk products, surveillance and testing of food materials and standardized farm practices are the best tools for saving lives from this deadly germ. That's right -- take a minute to thank your hardworking government agencies!

Now finish your breakfast. Nobody lives forever.

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