Four Serious Illnesses in Alaska Tied to Raw Milk

June 29, 2011

A serious illness that sickened four people was caused by drinking raw, unpasteurized milk from a south central Alaska dairy farm, according to state health officials.

The four, including a young child, developed a gastrointestinal sickness after drinking raw milk from a Matanuska Valley farm, the Anchorage Daily News reported Tuesday.

State epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said all four – who ranged in age from 1 to 81 – were infected by the same strain of the pathogen campylobacter.

Gareth Byers’ dairy farm sells shares in cows, allowing access for people who want to drink raw milk to get around state rules that prohibit it from being sold.

Byers said Monday he’s not convinced his farm was the source of the outbreak. He said he, his wife and three children go through about a gallon of raw milk a day.

“That shows you how worried I am,” he said.

Pasteurization, in which the milk is quickly heated, kills pathogens. But advocates of raw milk say it contains more beneficial enzymes and vitamins than pasteurized milk and tastes better.

Testing of the milk in May, just after the first case was reported, didn’t find campylobacter. But the test found another pathogen, listeria, which can cause life-threatening infections including meningitis. Pathogens might be in one batch but not the next, state officials said. Results from a second test are pending.

The campylobacter infection in some cases can lead to long-term health consequences, including arthritis. In rare cases, the autoimmune disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis, may develop several weeks after a bout of diarrhea.

At Byers’ farm, about 1,100 cow-share holders pay $15 a year. Then, for another $5 a week, they get a gallon of milk or a quart of cream, McLaughlin said. About 400 people pick up raw dairy products at the farm on a typical week.

Byers said the sales generate about 20 percent of his farm income.

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