By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Public health officials said on Monday that they have identified the source of a three-state listeria outbreak that killed at least one person as tainted cantaloupe grown in southeast Colorado.
Chris Urbina, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said authorities traced the food-borne bacteria to the Rocky Ford region, an area noted for its melon production.
"The department expects additional test results later this week that may help identify the specific source," Urbina said in a written statement.
Urbina said 11 people in Colorado have contracted gastrointestinal sickness from the bacteria, with one reported fatality in the state. While two patients have died in Colorado from listeria in the last month, investigators can link just one death to the current outbreak.
Federal health officials said last week that a listeria case in Nebraska and two more in Texas were traced to the same bacterial strain.
Healthy people normally don't become sickened by listeria, but the elderly, people with compromised immune systems from disease, and pregnant women are at risk to fall ill.
Those in high-risk groups should avoid unpasteurized soft cheeses, refrigerated smoked seafood and deli meats unless they have been reheated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, Urbina said.
Urbina said any cantaloupe should be washed thoroughly before it is sliced open, and any melons unrefrigerated for more than four hours should be discarded. Food preparers should wash their hands before and after handling the melons.
People infected with listeria experience flu-like symptoms, including muscle aches, diarrhea, a stiff neck and confusion. Severe cases can result in convulsions, and stillbirths or miscarriages in pregnant women.
Antibiotics are effective in combating the infection in most but not all cases.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)