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L.A. Medical Sleuths Honored by FDA

Times Staff Writer

One called herself “the bug lady,” which she preferred to nurse epidemiologist, and another was a doctor so curious about the organism Listeria monocytogenes attacking pregnant mothers and infants that she had kept a notebook on cases going back for years.

They and two other Los Angeles health figures were honored here Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for their dogged and intuitive work in tracking down the Jalisco cheese source of the listeriosis epidemic that was responsible for between 20 and 40 deaths in California last year--mostly of newborn Latino infants in the Los Angeles area.

Health officials consider the feat remarkable in view of the numerous ways the organism can be picked up.

Nurse epidemiologist Carol Salminen and Dr. Margaret Lynn Yonekura, who both worked at the County-USC Medical Center at the time of the outbreak, and Dr. Laurene Mascola, then at the federal Centers for Disease Control office in Los Angeles, were given FDA citations for their detection of the organism in the medical center’s Women’s Hospital.

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Abraham I. Kleks, retired FDA district director, was not present to receive the FDA’s award of merit for coordinating the search for the carrier of the bacteria and the subsequent recall of the Jalisco brand Mexican-style soft cheese.

Their efforts led ultimately to an end of the outbreak that had alarmed the nation.

The medical detective work began after “clusters” of patients with symptoms of illness caused by listeriosis bacteria were discovered in March and April last year, said Salminen, whose job was to monitor the incidence of cases of infections at Women’s Hospital.

After notifying the Los Angeles CDC office, Salminen and Yonekura--long interested in why listeriosis afflicted so many pregnant women and new babies--discovered that Mascola had also found “clusters of twos and threes and fours” of people with the symptoms.

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For a time, even strawberries were suspected. Or water.

Then it became apparent the outbreak was restricted to Latinos. At a brainstorming session, Dr. Peter Heseltine, an epidemiologist who grew up in Latin America, said: “Well, one of the things Latinos really like is the fresh cheese. You might take a look at that.”

Then began a painstaking series of questionnaires and case-by-case examinations--which led to Jalisco Mexican Products Inc.

Jalisco closed its Artesia cheese factory. Its president and principal owner, Gary McPherson, was later sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $18,800 for violations of the state Health and Safety Code.

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Salminen and the other researchers were among 425 recipients of annual honor awards presented by the agency.

Yonekura said the importance of last year’s discovery is that listeriosis “has become a statewide reportable disease,” instead of an unknown phenomenon.


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