'Worst' E. coli outbreak may be linked to French Broad Farm

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KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. (WVLT) -- The Knox County Health Department has confirmed "several" cases of E. coli in children, and say it may be linked to raw milk from a Mascot farm.

Health officials Tuesday evening said they are advising against drinking raw milk or any other unpasteurized products from French Broad Farm at this time and to throw any current supply out, due to a possible E. coli contamination.

The health department released a statement saying most of the children affected in the outbreak drank raw milk from the local cow-share dairy. KCHD said French Broad Farm is not currently operating, so exposure to animals or milk from the facility is no longer an issue.

KCHD said earlier in the investigation that the outbreak could be tied to raw milk or farm animals.

"We're looking at both of those very carefully to see which of those it might be,"
Dr. Martha Buchanan with the Knox County Health Department said.

East Tennessee Children's Hospital chief medical officer Dr. Joe Childs called the E. coli outbreak the "worst they've ever seen."

ETCH doctors have treated at least 10 children over the past 10 days for illnesses caused by E. coli bacteria. Four of those patients are reportedly in serious condition and receiving treatment in the intensive care unit.

E. coli are bacteria found in environment, foods, and the intestines of people and animals. Buchanan said that when it comes to farm animals, they're not necessarily very clean. E. coli can come from a child petting an animal with feces in its fur and not washing their hands, or touching animal droppings.

"If you go to a petting zoo, they have hand sanitizer everywhere,"
Buchanan said.
"You want your kids to use hand sanitizer after they go in the petting zoo to reduce the risk of getting sick."

She added that even though feces can be small and easy to miss, "you definitely can't see microbes."

"They are really small,"
Buchanan said.
"1,800 can cover the head of a pen, but 10 of them will make you sick."

"I think the bottom line that parents need to understand is E. coli is a serious illness, but it's preventable also,"
Buchanan said.

Raw milk fanatics believe, once acquired, it tastes better. It is also rumored that raw milk helps prevent allergies. The FDA disagrees. They released some myth busters saying, if you are sensitive to milk proteins, it doesn't matter if the milk is pasteurized or raw.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said most strains are harmless, while other kinds can cause diarrhea, severe stomach cramps, vomiting, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses. In severe cases, the infection can cause death. Children with any of these symptoms should seek care immediately.

"When this gets in the blood stream, it damages small blood vessels in the body, temporarily,"
Childs said.
"The kidneys are very sensitive to this, and they could fail."

People can be exposed to the bacteria from a number of sources. The following are some of the most common:

  • Raw milk (milk that has not been pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria)
  • Undercooked meat
  • Unwashed, contaminated raw fruits and vegetables
  • Animal feces
  • Contaminated bodies of water

Parents and caregivers can help prevent E.coli infection by taking the following steps:

  • Avoid consuming raw milk or dairy products made from raw milk.
  • Cook meat to an internal temperature recommended by the FDA.
  • Wash raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Wash hands well before eating.
  • Don’t drink the water from a pool, lake or river.

Find a full list of symptoms here.