MMA fighter’s newborn daughter dies from listeria, shines light on illness

PORTLAND, Ore.  — The death last week of MMA fighter Chael Sonnen‘s newborn daughter from a listeria infection shined a spotlight on the foodborne illness.

Sonnen, a West Linn native described as “one of the most polarizing figures in MMA,”talked about his baby, Blauna, on his podcast. She was born 10 weeks prematurely, and both she and his wife, Brittany, were diagnosed with listeriosis, said MMA official Jeff Meyer.

The CDC said listeriosis is usually caused by eating contaminated food and primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems.

CDC: Listeria definition

“It is worrisome in pregnancy because there is the chance a pregnant woman can pass the infection on to her fetus and that can cause potentially serious complications like miscarriage, still birth, preterm labor. So it can be serious in pregnancy,” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, the Deputy Health Officer for the Multnomah County Health Department.

Chael Sonnen — podcast talking about his newborn baby Blauna

Dr. Jennifer Vines, the Deputy Health Officer for the Multnomah County Health Department, August 22, 2016 (KOIN)
Dr. Jennifer Vines, the Deputy Health Officer for the Multnomah County Health Department, August 22, 2016 (KOIN)

“It’s an illness that would be hard to distinguish from others, so we talk about flu-like symptoms,” she said — fever, muscle aches, feeling tired, vomiting and diarrhea.

Vines said listeria is rare among pregnant women. Over the past 5 years, she said there’s been about 10 cases of listeria, “and of those, only 2 of those have been pregnant women.”

In the past 5 years in Multnomah County, only 2 pregnant women have been diagnosed with listeria — Dr. Jennifer Vines

She suggested pregnant women steam hot dogs or deli meats, avoid unpasteurized cheeses and avoid cross-contamination from the water in the package to any other foods, like a salad.

“You’d want to avoid any unpasteurized milk and then any unpasteurized milk that’s used to make cheese,” Vines said.

Pregnant women with listeria can be treated wtih an antibotic, she said.

Listeria in newborns is “very serious,” she said, with about a 30% fatality rate among infected newborns.

The MMA’s Meyer told KOIN 6 News in an email an “investigation is underway with the hope of determining how Brittany and Blauna were infected with listeriosis.”

They hope to track down the source of the infection in order to help other families “avoid a similar tragedy.”

Brittany Sonnen, he said, is recovering.

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