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5 now dead in ‘major’ cantaloupe salmonella outbreak as Canadian cases nearly double

Five people have now died in a salmonella outbreak linked to two brands of cantaloupe sold across Canada this fall, according to federal officials.

The Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed the deaths in its latest update on Thursday, though it did not provide further details. 

The outbreak, linked to contaminated Malichita or Rudy brand cantaloupe, has now sickened 129 people across six provinces — nearly double the number of cases since Dec. 1, when there was just a single reported death.

“Obviously, this is a major outbreak,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital.

“The number of cases that are diagnosed is really the tip of the iceberg. There are probably many, many, many more cases of milder illness that don’t make it to clinical attention.”

Salmonella is a bacteria commonly associated with raw or undercooked chicken, but can also be found in raw fruits and vegetables. Most people who get sick recover on their own in a few days, but the illness can be severe and lead to hospitalization. 

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The current outbreak has been linked to contaminated Malichita or Rudy brand cantaloupe sold in October and November.

WATCH | Canadians urged to throw out recalled cantaloupe: 

What to do after warning about salmonella in cantaloupes

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist, urged people who have recalled cantaloupes in their home to discard them and get checked if they have symptoms.

Cases have spiked in Quebec, with 91 confirmed infections as of Thursday compared to 35 last week.

The agency said there are also 17 cases in Ontario and 15 in British Columbia, as well as two each in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Nearly half of the people who have become infected are people over 65, while another third are children under five. There have been cases in babies less than a year old and at least one adult as old as 100, the update said.

The recalled Malichita cantaloupe was sold in Canada between Oct. 11 and Nov. 14, while the Rudy brand fruit was sold from Oct. 10 to Nov. 24.

PHAC said people became sick between mid-October and mid-November, with 44 ending up in hospital. Investigators are still looking into additional infections to see whether those illnesses are connected to the cantaloupe.

“People who are infected with salmonella bacteria can spread salmonella to other people several days to several weeks after they have become infected, even if they don’t have symptoms,” the update said.

Two produce stickers, one blue and one white, appear against a white background.
Canada’s public health agency released these photos showing what the stickers would look like on cantaloupes sold under the Rudy and Malichita brand names. (Supplied by Public Health Agency of Canada)

Consumers should not buy, eat or sell cantaloupe distributed by Malichita or Rudy. The agency has issued separate recalls for other types of fruit, like honeydew, pineapple, watermelon and assorted fruit trays.

“If you are unable to verify the brand of cantaloupe, or if your produce is part of the CFIA recalls, it is recommended to throw it out,” PHAC said.

Contamination likely started at farm: experts

The agency did not say how the fruit might have been spoiled, but experts suspect contamination started at farms.

“The very likely source here is likely at the site of origin: at the farm,” said Bogoch. “It’s common, unfortunately, for these to be contaminated with the feces of animals [carrying salmonella bacteria]. It’s an unfortunate reality.”

Xiaonan Lu, professor of food science and agricultural chemistry at McGill University in Montreal, said tainted water could be to blame.

“If your irrigation water is contaminated by salmonella, then that irrigation water will carry that salmonella to the soil, to the fresh produce,” he said. “Then, if you do the cutting in your kitchen, the knife facilitates the transfer of the salmonella from the surface of the cantaloupe to the internal part, which is the fruit.”

Officials in the United States are also investigating a salmonella outbreak linked to tainted cantaloupe. Three people in that country have died, with a total of 230 illnesses across 38 states.

PHAC said cases in both countries are being caused by the same genetic strain of salmonella bacteria.

Salmonella symptoms include fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and headaches. The illness is more likely to cause severe symptoms in young children, seniors and people with compromised immune systems.

People who think they are sick should contact their health-care provider.

“It is not hard to diagnose salmonella, it is not hard to treat salmonella, but you have to know what you’re treating and people need to come to medical care early,” sad Bogoch.

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