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A Knoxville outbreak of E. coli illnesses sickened more than 10 children who appear to be divided into two groups with no overlap, which is “very uncommon,” said Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department (KCHD).
A “majority” of the children became sick after drinking raw milk from a local cow-share dairy, French Broad Farm. Meanwhile, another group of children became sick after attending a Mascot child-care center called Kids Place Inc., the health department said.
East Tennessee Children’s Hospital (ETCH) has treated 11 children, all younger than 4, for E. coli-related illnesses in the past two weeks. There have been no deaths related to the outbreak, and the county recorded no new cases over the weekend, Buchanan said.
Six still hospitalized
As of Monday, six children remained at ETCH, with two children in the pediatric intensive-care unit in serious condition, a hospital spokesperson said. Two children who were in ICU have been moved to a different part of the hospital because their conditions improved.
Some children who became sick were treated by their doctors and not hospitalized, Buchanan said. She would not give exact numbers.
Kids Place takes action
Kids Place closed the unit where the children are enrolled after the KCHD began investigating the outbreak. Buchanan said children in the “Baby House” might have come in contact with farm animals carrying E. coli in their intestines.
“The safety of all children is the top priority at Kids Place,” the child-care center said in a statement when the outbreak first made headlines last week.
“When we learned that a child was diagnosed with E. coli infection, we took several immediate proactive steps. Kids Place quickly notified all parents; contacted the Knox County Health Department; disinfected classrooms and common areas; installed a new outdoor surface; and closed the Baby House for toddlers.”
E. coli and farm animals
E. coli – or Escherichia coli – is a type of bacteria normally found in the intestinal tracts of healthy farm animals. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but some can cause serious disease in people.
E. coli is a common food-borne bacterium, but it also can be transmitted to people by farm animals and their environment. Farm animals – including sheep, goats, calves, and backyard poultry – that are affected by E. coli might not show any signs of it.
Symptoms in people vary but often include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. Although an E. coli infection rarely ends in death, blood in the urine is a sign of more severe disease potentially affecting the kidneys.
E. coli and raw milk
Drinking unpasteurized, or raw, milk greatly increases the risk of contracting an E. coli illness, especially for young children. Unpasteurized milk is any “raw” milk that has not undergone a process in which the milk is heated to destroy dangerous microorganisms.
In the United States, raw milk is primarily produced by dairy cows, but it also can be produced by goats and sheep.
Raw milk proponents argue that consuming it prevents lactose intolerance, boosts the immune system, and can aid in the prevention of allergies. Those proponents say pasteurizing the milk can damage or destroy the milk’s nutrients and “good” bacteria.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say there is no evidence to support those claims. The CDC reported that between 1998 and 2011, about 2,400 Americans were sickened in 148 illness outbreaks caused by the consumption of raw milk or raw-milk cheese.
Of the approximately 2,400 people sickened, 284 were hospitalized, and two died. Additionally, of the 104 outbreaks in which patients’ ages were included, more than 80 percent involved at least one person younger than 20.