Tennessee health officials are reporting that at least two individuals from the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Region who contracted the protozoan parasite, cryptosporidium, consumed raw milk from a dairy cow share program prior to their illness.

Cryptosporidium parvum oocysts
Cryptosporidium parvum oocysts/CDC/ DPDx

The Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) is investigating multiple gastrointestinal disease reports linked to consumption of raw milk to include sporadic cases of Campylobacter and Shiga-toxin producing E. coli in people who also reported consuming raw milk from different sources.

“Consuming raw milk in the belief it’s healthier than pasteurized milk is a perilous risk that shakes off the possibility of a range of serious and occasionally fatal illnesses for the individuals and anyone they share it with,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “Our best choice for healthy, nutritious milk is the pasteurized kind. Even if one believes there are health benefits, an upside, is it worth gambling on the downside risk of a serious illness, especially in a child?”

Cow share programs were made legal in Tennessee in 2009, allowing wider access to raw milk. Since that time TDH has had increasing reports of disease and outbreaks linked to raw milk consumption. In 2013, nine Tennessee children became extremely sick with E. coli O157 after drinking raw milk. Five of these children required hospitalization and three developed severe, life-threatening kidney problems.

“Raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause a foodborne illness than pasteurized milk and can be life-threatening to some, particularly to children. Those who consume raw milk should be aware of the serious health risks involved,” said TDH Deputy State Epidemiologist John Dunn, DVM, PhD. “While some adults may be able to tolerate bacteria found in unpasteurized milk or food products made with raw milk, children, older adults, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems can be in great danger.

“While it is legal in Tennessee for individuals to consume raw milk from their own animals, it doesn’t change the risk to their health,” continued Dunn. “The simple fact is all raw milk contains bacteria that pasteurization would destroy. We strongly urge Tennesseans to choose pasteurized foods and beverages when purchasing and consuming dairy products.”

To eliminate risk of infection, the Tennessee Department of Health suggests consumers read the labels of all milk and cheese products to make sure they buy only those which have been pasteurized. Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria by simply heating milk for a specific amount of time. Pasteurization has been recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the ten great public health achievements of the 20th century.

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