County health officers warn of the health dangers tied to drinking raw milk

May 8, 2012

Multnomah County health officers reminded the public on Monday, May 7 that milk is a nutritious food and that pasteurized milk is the safest option.

Two public health officers appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud,’’ where they re-stated the high risk associated with consuming raw milk.

Their comments came In the wake of 19 area-people becoming ill last month from drinking raw milk. Among those getting sick from raw milk were four children hospitalized with kidney failure.

All 19 victims drank raw milk from the Foundation Farm in Clackamas County, according to the Oregon Public Health Division. The state reported two of the farm’s four cows tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, as did the manure and raw milk produced by the cows. E. coli O157:H7 is poisonous bacteria that can cause abdominal pain, dehydration, kidney failure, bleeding, brain damage and in some cases, death.

A local mother who appeared on the OPB program said her 2-year-old daughter is among those hospitalized with kidney failure and hemolytic-uremic syndrome since drinking the raw milk. She told the radio audience the child has been hospitalized 28 days and had suffered strokes, brain swelling and undergone surgery to remove part of her bowels. She is in stable condition.

Dr. Paul Lewis, deputy health officer for Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, expressed concern for children, who are the most likely to consume raw milk. Lewis, a pediatrician, has witnessed the suffering of the children and their parents. E. coli O157:H7 produces a toxin that damages blood vessels throughout the body, especially in the intestines and kidneys, Lewis said. There is no specific medical treatment for the severe illness caused by E. coli O157:H7, only supportive care. 

"Raw milk is especially concerning," Lewis said. "Not only because it can carry dangerous bacteria, but also because kids are the biggest milk drinkers."

Pasteurization -- heating milk briefly followed by rapid chilling -- is a vital health step because it kills dangerous bacteria. That step has been in widespread use in the United States for decades. Before commercial pasteurization, mothers historically boiled raw milk because of its potential to harbor health dangers, including tuberculosis.

There have been at least five well-publicized raw milk outbreaks nationwide in the last year and more than 120 in the last decade.

Dr. Gary Oxman, county health officer, told radio host Dave Miller that raw milk cannot be offered for sale in Oregon with two exceptions. One exception is small farms with two cows or fewer that can sell on the farm only and without advertising. The second exception is for raw milk distributed under a cow-share program, where the individuals are part owners and can drink the milk they own.

Oxman said he wants people to be informed about the risk of raw milk and then decide about taking that risk.

“We want people to understand clearly what the dangers are. The risk is somewhat random,’’ Oxman said. “If you consume raw milk on the wrong day, you or your children can get very, very sick.”

For more information:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Raw Milk fact sheet

In the news

Read an Oregonian guest column, "Weighing the raw risk: Drinking unpasteurized milk simply isn't safe," by Mel Kohn, director of the Oregon Public Health Division of the Oregon Health Authority. (The Oregonian, April 20)