Careful Watch Kept on Victims : Infants Battle Suspected Cheese Bacteria Infections

Times Staff Writer

Despite the intravenous tube running to his forehead beneath a fuzzy crown of dark hair, the 12-day-old Rojas boy was one of the healthiest-looking babies in the neonatal ward at UC Irvine Medical Center on Friday.

About three hours before his birth on June 2, his mother, Adrianna, came in complaining of high fever and nausea--symptoms of the Listeriosis infection that has claimed 29 lives in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The bacterial infection had already claimed the lives of five infants at the medical center. So when neonatalogist Dr. Luke C. Yu found the Rojas baby in fetal distress, doctors tested the mother for Listeriosis, and treated her with antibiotics.

When her child was born a few hours later, he was “basically dead and they revived him,” said hospital spokeswoman Barbara Firger.


‘Just in Time’

“I have a feeling we caught it just in time,” Yu said. But the struggle was not over immediately. The Rojas baby spent several days on a respirator, developed meningitis, an infected lung, blood clotting problems and a liver abnormality. But Friday he was weighing a hefty six pounds-plus and doctors said he should be heading home soon.

Just down the hall from the Rojas boy, two other babies apparently suffering from Listeriosis are recuperating. Eloisa Mendoza brought her 40-day-old daughter Erika to the emergency room after a relative revived the barely conscious child with a whiff of onion and Mexican liquor.

Doctors at a Santa Ana clinic had told Mendoza the girl had colic, she said, but at the hospital, the feverish Erika suffered a seizure and showed symptoms of meningitis. A test showed she had Listeriosis.


In the same room at UC Irvine medical center was 12-day-old Sergio Flores--not yet officially a Listeriosis sufferer but showing all the symptoms of the ailment. He had lost weight, was feverish and had trouble breathing when his mother, Teresa, brought him back to the hospital where he had been born, after a local clinic nurse told her the child’s condition was “serious.”

‘Our Favorite’

As she rocked her new grandson, Maria Castillo said the Jalisco brand cheese that health officials blame for Sergio’s ailment “was our favorite. It was the one we preferred to eat. But not any more. I don’t trust it any more.” “This organism is like a mugger,” said Dr. R. David Miller, director of infectious diseases. “It feasts on, it attacks the most susceptible, the weakest--young babies, older people, pregnant women and their babies.”

Los Angeles’ County-USC Medical Center, where several infants died or were miscarried, did not have any Listeriosis patients in its wards Friday.


However, Dr. Milton Birnbaum, whose Sunset Boulevard practice draws many Latino patients, said his office Friday began calling each of the more than 30 patients who had complained within the last month of the same symptoms which the Listeria bacteria induces.

It was one of his patients who brought it to his attention, he said. Meredith Uribe, 45, had eaten some of the cheese for lunch Monday, and by Monday night was in pain. She was still at home, still sick, on Thursday when she saw news reports about the cheese, and drove to Birnbaum’s office, carrying the smelly cheese with her.

“I was really frightened, just like if you found out you ate glass or something,” she said. “I was just lucky that I found out right away.”