The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Section of Epidemiology is investigating four recent illnesses on the Kenai Peninsula believed to be associated with raw milk consumption, said Greg Wilkinson, a department spokesperson. The patients admitted to drinking raw milk a few days before getting sick, Wilkinson said. They have not told where they got the raw milk. Because of patient privacy rules, Wilkinson said he could not name the peninsula towns where the patients live.
The infection, campylobacter, can cause diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and fever after two to five days of consuming raw milk, according to a department press release.
The illness, caused from fecal contamination in the cow's milk, can be life threatening in young children or those with compromised immune systems, according to the document. Some people with campylobacter infection develop arthritis. In rare cases, patients can develop a life-threatening disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome that inflames the nerves of the body and begins several weeks after the onset of diarrhea.
Wilkinson said four Kenai Peninsula residents reported similar symptoms to the department, and it is conducting preliminary investigations. A fifth person also is suspected to have a probable campylobacter infection, but that has not been confirmed. An infant with close contact to one of the four victims also is suspected to be infected.
Alaska regulations do not allow the sale of raw milk; however, buying shares of a cow to receive its milk is permissible.
Dr. Brian Yablon, an epidemiologist with DHSS, said raw milk serves as an ideal environment for bacteria such as e.coli, listeria, salmonella and campylobacter.
Thousands of Americans have been sickened and hundreds have been hospitalized because of infections acquired from raw milk over the past 25 years in the United States, Yalbon said.
"This is not new knowledge," he said. "The infectious risks of raw milk have been known for hundreds of years, and are the reason that pasteurization became universal practice in the United States in the 19th century."
In a 2011 outbreak, 18 people reported illness of campylobacter that was eventually traced to a Mat-Su valley farm. Other sources of campylobacter include consumption of under-cooked meat, consumption of food or water cross-contaminated by raw meat or from contact with the feces of infected animals. Humans also can spread the sickness to each other.
The department asks that anyone experiencing stomach pains, diarrhea or a fever since January to call the department's Section of Epidemiology at (907) 269-8000 and request a member of the epidemiology team.
Dan Schwartz is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.Homer News reporter Michael Armstrong contributed to this story.