There’s another outbreak linked to E. coli and raw milk. This month, 11 children in Tennessee fell ill with E. coli during the first part of June, according to local newspaper Knox News. Six were still in a local children’s hospital as of June 10th. Two were in serious condition. Some of the children affected were treated by a physician, but did not need to be hospitalized.
The Outbreak Breakdown
Knox County health department officials told local news that most of the children were sickened after a trip to French Broad Farm, a local cow-share dairy. While visiting the farm, a group of children drank raw milk. Several children showed signs of E. coli infection after that farm visit, like vomiting, abdominal pain, and severe watery diarrhea.
French Broad Farm is closed for the time being. Investigators are currently testing manure and milk samples at the site to see if they can track down the source of the E. coli. The farm is no longer distributing raw milk, but investigators are urging the public to dispose of product purchased from French Broad in the days leading up to the outbreak.
The Issue With Raw Milk
Raw milk is a controversial food product that’s enjoyed a recent uptick in popularity. Most dairy products in the United States undergoes a process called pasteurization; it’s heated to a temperature that kills potentially dangerous pathogens like E. coli. Raw milk is “raw” because it’s not pasteurized before consumption.
Proponents of raw milk claim that the pasteurization process breaks down important vitamins and nutrients. They also believe that exposure to the microbes which would otherwise be killed by pasteurization strengthens immune systems in the long term, leading to healthier microbiota in the gut, fewer food allergies, and a more robust, holistic immune response when the body is exposed to dangerous infectious agents.
Opponents of raw milk say that unpasteurized dairy products are dangerous. They can harbor bacteria like E. coli, campylobacter, and listeria, all of which can cause serious illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control, raw milk and associated products were responsible for 202 out of 239 dairy product-related hospitalizations between 1993 and 2006. Sometimes, the consequences of drinking raw milk can be long term and serious: Mother Jones reports that campylobacter from raw milk left a woman paralyzed in one instance.
There is Such Thing As Secondary Infection; Two Outbreaks Pending Link
Not all of the victims of the Tennessee E. coli outbreak were sickened by raw milk. Another group of children picked up E. coli at Kids Place Inc., a local daycare center. A press release from the daycare said that a sick child was dropped off there and that three others were diagnosed with E. coli shortly afterwards. All of the affected children attended a section of Kids Place called the Baby House.
Health officials are still working to determine exactly how the two groups got sick. They’re not yet sure whether the group at the raw milk dairy and the group at the daycare were infected with the same strain of E. coli, or whether the two groups represent distinct and separate outbreaks of E. coli that are unrelated to one another.
There is a farm attached to the daycare, according to local news station WATE. The facility houses ducks, goats, and dogs. There is also a farm with livestock adjacent to Kids Place. Daycare officials told local media that the animals at Kids Place are fenced in. They also said that the children at Baby House don’t have access to the animals on Kids Place property or at the neighboring farm and have not interacted with them.
The daycare has reopened in part the time being. Baby House will remain closed for slightly longer as a precaution. Investigators are assessing the animals at Kids Place and the neighboring farm as they try to determine the source of the outbreak.
As part of the conditions of their reopening, Kids Place will take precautionary steps and adopt some new rules to guard against further outbreaks. A health department official speaking to local TV station WBIR outlined several mitigation steps underway at the business. The daycare underwent environmental cleaning and closed their pool on a temporary basis. Staff underwent an infection control course with the health department and are drawing up an infection control plan. A new policy will also require children at Kids Place to remove their shoes before entering the facility.
Early reports from the Knox News reported that some of the affected children landed in intensive pediatric care with kidney failure. Mild to moderate cases of E. coli usually include abdominal cramping and watery, bloody diarrhea. The elderly, very young, and immunocompromised individuals are at risk for more serious symptoms; one of those is kidney failure.
Raw Milk Roulette
Pasteurization is a crucial process to ensure that harmful bacteria, such as E. coli Listeria, Salmonella, and Campylobacter, are killed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urge that “even dairy farms with very good safety practices can harbor illness-causing germs. And even if a batch of a farm’s raw milk tests come back negative, it is no guarantee that the next batch will be free of harmful germs.” Without pasteurization, no farmer can guarantee the safety of its raw milk products. This means that it may not sicken you this time, but next time could land you in the hospital. It is best to check your milk’s label and opt for the pasteurized version, especially if you are in the high risk group.
This Bacterium is Dangerous and Scary
Certain strains of E. coli release a toxin called Shiga toxin that damages small blood vessels. Kidneys are packed with small blood vessels, and an excess of Shiga toxin can cause them to fail. This can cause serious illness in children called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Those who have become ill with E. coli and developed HUS, can be left with non-functioning kidneys for weeks, requiring catheters and dialysis. In rare cases, HUS can cause death.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)