Health department identifies Peninsula Dairy source of outbreak

The state health department has traced the source of the campylobacter outbreak that has infected now more than 21 people back to Peninsula Dairy, a dairy farm in Kasilof on the Kenai Peninsula.

 

Currently two people have been hospitalized from the infection, an adult and a child, but no one has died, said Joe McLaughlin, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services epidemiologist.

The infection causes diarrhea, stomach pains, nausea and vomiting, and fever one to 10 days following exposure. The illness can last for more than a week.

McLaughlin said those experiencing symptoms should see their doctor.

State veterinarian Bob Gerlach and Donna Fearey, a nurse epidemiologist for the state, on Tuesday inspected Peninsula Dairy, owned by Kevin Byers. Gerlach said they saw no problems with Byers’ operation.

“In comparison to most dairies, he’s doing a pretty good job,” Gerlach said.

He said Byers had modern and clean equipment and his cows were healthy and well-fed. Campylobacter infections, he said, are always a concern for dairy operations.

Byers declined to comment immediately when reached Wednesday by the Peninsula Clarion.

More than 90 percent of dairy farms throughout the Lower 48 owned cows that tested positive for campylobacter bacteria, according to a National Animal Health Monitoring System study from the United States Department of Agriculture.

The bacteria can also be found on farm vegetables that come in contact with livestock feces infected with the bacteria, he said.

“A lot of the foods that we eat often have some bacteria or pathogens on the outside of them, so you try to wash them off,” he said.

While pasteurized milk is heated to temperatures to kill harmful bacteria — much like washing the bacteria from fresh vegetables — raw milk is potentially left with the bacteria that can harm those drinking it, he said.

The bottom line, he said: “Raw milk is a risky product.” He said the bacterial infection is an innate risk.

“It’s not like you have an isolated case here,” he said.

In a 2011 outbreak, 18 people were reported to have the same infection that was eventually traced back to a farm owned by Byers’ brother in the Matanuska Valley.

The campylobacter infection was of a different strain, however, and Gerlach said connecting the two outbreaks would be inappropriate.

While Byers would not comment Wednesday, McLaughlin said the farmer was cooperative and supplied the department with his customers’ names so it could inform them of the campylobacter threat.

The department cannot close Byers’ farm as cow-share programs are legal, McLaughlin said. The direct sale of raw milk is, however, illegal, he said.

By Feb. 13 the department had identified four infection clusters, raising a “red flag,” and sent out its health alert two days later.

The department took almost the next two weeks to identify Peninsula Dairy as the source of the infections, Fearey said, because it needed to verify that the sick individuals had consumed or come in contact with raw milk.

“If raw milk comes up as a potential exposure, that comes up as a red flag (for campylobacter),” McLaughlin said.

 

Dan Schwartz can be reached at daniel.schwartz@peninsulaclarion.com.

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