The State Department of Health is investigating an outbreak of a food borne illness linked to raw milk. Officials have confirmed four cases of Campylobacter infection in people who drank raw milk on the Kenai Peninsula. The illness causes diarrhea, vomiting and fever.
Dr. Brian Yablon is a medical epidemiologist with the state. He says the cases have all been identified by the state lab in the last three weeks:
“When they looked at these strains, they found that the four specimens were all exactly the same type, so that is consistent with a cluster of illnesses and when we found out additional information it seemed that all of the people who developed the infection had consumed raw milk or unpasteurized milk in the proceeding several days before they got sick,” Yablon said.
The state is still working to identify the source of the raw milk. A farmer named Kevin Byers in Kasilof distributes raw milk to families around the state. He did not agree to a recorded interview, but said he doesn’t know if his milk is responsible for the outbreak. He says his customers drink his milk for the perceived health benefits. According to a recent newspaper article, Byers has 150 customers as far away as Sitka.
Selling raw milk is illegal in Alaska. But farmers have found ways to do it legally.
“There are these share programs where people purchase a share or lease an animal and because they’re technically then a partial owner of the animal they can go ahead and consume the raw milk,” state veterinarian Bob Gerlach said.
A similar outbreak of Campylobacter bacteria was traced to a Mat-Su Valley farmer in 2011. There were 18 people with probable or confirmed illness in that outbreak. That operation has since gone out of business.
Gerlach says the state tries to get information to people who own shares of cows about the danger of drinking raw milk. But he says it’s difficult to track how many farmers are distributing raw milk in the state:
“In most cases somebody who does drink raw milk or is part of a cow share operation generally isn’t communicating a lot with us. Because it’s their own private business and they’d like to go ahead and keep it that way,” Gerlach said.
People with Campylobacter illness usually have a miserable few days and then get better. But it can be life threatening in people with compromised immune systems. And Dr. Yablon says there are other risks.
“At a minimum it’s a nuisance and it makes you feel pretty bad. But the illness can also be more protracted it can last a week or longer. The bacteria actually could get into your blood stream and that could cause major problems,” Yablon said.
Yablon says in rare cases it can also cause a type of arthritis or a rare inflammatory nerve disease. He says there is no scientific evidence that raw milk is any healthier than pasteurized milk.
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