Health officials confirm a case has been found in Schenectady County
By RICK KARLIN, Staff writer
First published: Saturday, August 13, 2005
SCHENECTADY — A deadly strain of listeria that killed one and sickened two others in the Syracuse area this summer has turned up in Schenectady County, health officials confirmed Friday.
A laboratory analysis by state scientists matched the strains, and researchers are trying to determine if there is a link.
“It looks like it’s coming from the same source,” said Kathy Sen, supervising community health nurse at the Schenectady County Health Department. The unidentified patient is believed to have taken ill last month and was hospitalized before recovering and being sent home, Sen said. Health officials would not provide details about the patient, citing federal confidentiality rules.
Listeria is a bacteria found in soil and water, but it also lives on foods such as uncleaned vegetables, deli meats, pate and unpasteurized milk.
Healthy people can slough off the virus like a mild case of the flu. But newborns, pregnant women, the elderly or those in poor health or with illnesses affecting the immune system are vulnerable.
State health officials say the cases in Onondaga and Schenectady counties are the only ones they are aware of at this point. For now, they are focusing on trying to find a food item, restaurant or other common denominator among the four victims.
“What we try to do is to identify a common source,” said Department of Health spokesman Rob Kenny.
Among the methods they are using: tracking food purchases recorded on supermarket and other types of discount cards to see if the patients may have consumed a common food item. Retailers keep track of individual buying habits to help in their promotions, and researchers have approached those sickened by listeria to see if they can use their discount cards to try to track the bacteria’s source.
The illness can be hard to identify and track for a number of reasons. The symptoms, which run from a mild fever and headache to a stiff neck signifying the onset of meningitis-like symptoms, can be confused with the flu.
Healthy individuals may simply get better after a day or so, meaning the disease isn’t reported to authorities, said Sen. “A lot of times people don’t get ill enough to seek care,” she said.
Adding to the difficulty of tracking listeria is the incubation period, from three to 60 days, meaning that the disease can manifest itself up to two months after the contaminated food was consumed. In 2002, listeria killed at least seven people in New York state, including three in Albany, Schenectady and Columbia counties. The outbreak was traced nationally to some 30 million pounds of contaminated turkey, said Kenny.
A multi-state outbreak in 1998 traced to contaminated hot dogs and deli meats killed 16 people.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, listeria sickens about 2,500 and kills 500 per year nationally. Illness caused by the bacteria is not contagious.
The best defense against getting sick, Sen said, is to wash fruits and vegetables, and for pregnant women, or those in frail health, to avoid uncooked deli items. Also, parents should guard against a perennial favorite among some kids: raw hot dogs, since thorough cooking of meats kills the bacteria.
One precaution that doesn’t work, though, is refrigerating food items. It seems to thrive in cold temperatures.