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Are pregnant Latino women at greater risk for listeriosis?

From a biological standpoint, Latino women are not at a greater risk for contracting listeriosis. This disease can attack people of all races, ages and genders. However, from a dietary standpoint, pregnant Latinas are at higher risk for contracting it. The high incidence of listeriosis among pregnant Latino women is largely due to the consumption of homemade, Mexican-style soft cheeses – quesos frescos which are sometimes made with unpasteurized milk.

What is listeriosis?
Listeriosis is a bacteria infection that, although rare, can cause severe pregnancy complications, including miscarriage, stillbirth, uterine infections, premature labor and even the death of a newborn. Pregnant women are about 20 times more likely to get listeriosis than other healthy adults and about one third of all cases occur in pregnant women.

What causes listeriosis?
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, listeriosis is caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium listeria monocytogenes. This disease primarily affects pregnant women and their unborn babies, newborns, older adults and other people with weakened immune systems.

Where is the listeria bacterium found?
Listeria can be found in processed foods such as deli meats, soft cheeses and other foods made from unpasteurized milk. Most people become sick from food. Listeria is unusual because it can grow at refrigerator temperatures where most other foodborne bacteria do not. Cooking and commercial processes like pasteurization destroy listeria, reducing potential risk of exposure to humans. It is commonly found in soil, water, decaying vegetation and the intestinal tract of animals. Food that isn’t washed well or comes into contact with meat from infected animals can also cause listeriosis.

NCHSF logoWhat are the symptoms of listeriosis?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that a person may experience fever, chills, muscle aches, nausea, diarrhea or upset stomach. If infection spreads to the nervous system, headaches, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance or convulsions can occur. In extreme cases, it can be deadly. Pregnant women may experience mild flu-like symptoms or may not feel sick at all, yet the infection can still severely affect their unborn babies.

How is listeriosis cured?
A doctor may prescribe safe antibiotics for a pregnant woman and babies.

Despite a repeated and recent outbreak of listeriosis in North Carolina reported in December 2007, there is little awareness of this problem among the Latino community (see CDC article Outbreak of Listeriosis Associated With Homemade Mexican-Style Cheese, North Carolina, October 2000-January 2001). Few Latinos are aware of listeriosis or other infections related to unpasteurized milk products and food borne illness, or the possible complications that can arise during pregnancy. Latina women are often confused about the types of cheeses that are safe to eat during pregnancy. The lack of accessible and accurate health information for Latino women adds to this misinformation.

Because first generation Latinos have a stronger tendency to maintain dietary and food-buying traditions in search of authentic tastes from home, new immigrants are more vulnerable to listeriosis. Many believe that homemade cheese and unpasteurized milk are healthier and tastier than store-bought products. Buying cheese, sour cream or nata (butter milk) from individuals, unlabeled or not properly refrigerated products is thought to be safe since that’s the way they were sold at home. Selling unwrapped cheese in an open-air market is a common scene in Latino markets and sometimes in local Latino stores in the U.S. NCHSF logo

Mexican soft cheeses such as: queso fresco, blanco, asadero or panela are popular ingredients in a long list of traditional Mexican and Latino dishes such as refried beans with cheese, tacos, tostadas, salads, veggie patties and enchiladas to name a few. Due to queso fresco’s popularity, Latinos businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs are satisfying consumer’s need and taste.

In North Carolina, it is legal to purchase raw milk for personal consumption and some Latinos have purchased raw milk to make homemade cheese and sell it. When queso fresco is produced in private homes, safety regulations are difficult to enforce. Selling cheese or other types of homemade food door-to-door or from an ice chest inside the car’s trunk is popular at soccer games, outside Latino businesses or churches.

It is unfortunate that such a preventable illness keeps attacking Latino women and putting their unborn babies’ health and lives at risk. It is urgent that health providers and educators help inform Latinas about the dangers of eating queso fresco, so Latinas can take the necessary precautions during pregnancy to prevent listeriosis.

Four Tips to Prevent Listeriosis in Pregnant Women:

Educate Latinas on the risk of consuming unpasteurized milk and milk products such as Mexican fresh soft cheeses, sour creams and natas. Teach the importance of practicing good hygiene, using clean utensils, hand washing and proper food refrigeration. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise these four simple steps to minimize their likelihood of getting listeriosis:
  1. Clean: Before, during and after food preparation, wash your hands and kitchen surfaces often with hot water and soap. Listeria can grow at refrigerator temperatures, so clean your refrigerator regularly and wipe up spills inside immediately. Use hot water and a mild liquid dishwashing detergent, then rinse thoroughly and dry with a clean cloth or paper towel.
  2. Separate: Keep raw meats separate from other foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
  3. Cook: Thoroughly cook and reheat food to a safe internal temperature before eating. Thoroughly cook meat, poultry and seafood.
  4. Chill: Your refrigerator should register 40°F (4°C) or below. Place a refrigerator thermometer in the refrigerator and check the temperature periodically. Store perishable foods that are pre-cooked or ready-to-eat in your refrigerator and eat them as soon as possible.
Latinos At-A-Glance

  • Approximately 2,500 people become seriously from listeriosis each year and, of these, 500 die.
  • Newborns rather than the pregnant women themselves suffer the more serious effects of listeriosis infection in pregnancy.
  • Pregnant women are 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get listeriosis.

    Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2008
  • Hispanic infants have a 12 times greater incidence of listeriosis than non-Hispanic counterparts.
  • Hispanic women age 30 to 34 had a 13 times greater incidence than non-Hispanic counterparts.

Source: International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2000.



  1. Opens in new window Listeriosis: Frequently Asked Questions
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  2. Opens in new window Listeriosis: Frequently Preventing Food-Borne Diseases Among Pregnant Hispanic Women
    The Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities (OMHD)/ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  3. Opens in new window Foodborne Illness Publications and Materials
    Office of Women's Health/ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  4. Opens in new window Listeriosis and Pregnancy: What is Your Risk? - PDF
    Food Safety
  5. Opens in new window Food facts: The Dangers of Raw Milk - PDF
    U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Health Resources en Español

  1. Opens in new window Protéjase y proteja a su bebé de la Listeriosis
  2. Opens in new window Proteja los Alimentos y Goce de un Embarazo Sano Printable educational flyer in Spanish - USDA
  3. Opens in new window Infecciones por listeria Medline Plus en español

5 Useful Spanish Health Phrases

  1. ¿Dónde compra queso fresco? (Where do you buy soft-cheese?)
  2. ¿Sabe qué es la listeriosis? (Do you know what listeriosis is?)
  3. No consuma queso sin pasteurizar o no empaquetado. (Don’t consume unpasteurized or unlabeled cheese.)
  4. Lave bien las frutas y verduras. (Wash fruits and vegetables well.)
  5. Cocine bien todas las carnes, pollo y mariscos. (Cook thoroughly all the meat, chicken and seafood.)

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