Milk consumers notified of E. coli outbreak

VANCOUVER -- Health officials on Friday began contacting 45 families and individuals who received unpasteurized milk from a Woodland farm after its owners released the names as part of an E. coli outbreak investigation.

Michael and Anita Puckett, owners of Dee Creek Farm, gave the list to a Cowlitz County Health Department official late Thursday, the same day Superior Court Judge James E. Warme ordered its hand-over within 24 hours.

Public health experts say nine children and two adults became sick with the potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 after drinking raw milk from Dee Creek Farm, where people own shares of cows in exchange for milk.

The farm, however, is not licensed to sell or trade raw milk, as required by law, said Claudia Coles, food safety program manager at the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The E. coli pathogen, which can cause kidney damage and death, is carried in cows' colons. Milk can become contaminated by cow fecal matter, and the pathogen remains dangerous if the milk is not pasteurized, health officials said. They are trying to determine how the milk could have become contaminated.

Two children remained hospitalized in critical condition Friday, though one was showing progress, said Marni Storey, Clark County Health Department's public health services manager. Three other children were hospitalized but have been released.

Seven of the sick children are from Clark County, one is from Cowlitz County and one is from Clatsop County in Oregon. The ill adults are the parents of the Clatsop County child.

Most families or individuals on the "shareholder" list are Clark County residents, but five are in Cowlitz County and about eight are in Oregon -- including Clatsop and Wasco counties and the Portland metropolitan area, Storey said.

Health officials are contacting people on the list to identify any other potential E. coli cases and find unused milk, Storey said. Anyone with symptoms will be urged to seek medical care, she said, and health workers will request samples of any unused milk.

No new cases have been found, she said. If no new cases turn up before Jan. 2, the county Health Department will declare the outbreak over, Storey said. If new cases arise before then, the department will wait 20 days -- two incubation cycles for the pathogen -- before declaring it over, she said.

Anyone who has consumed raw milk products from Dee Creek Farm within the past three weeks and has bloody or cramping diarrhea is urged to contact their health care provider or local health department. Clark County residents can call 360-397-8182. The Cowlitz County Health Department can be reached at 360-414-5590.

Also Friday, students at Thomas Jefferson Middle and Felida Elementary schools in the Vancouver School District took home letters about the outbreak, the symptoms and tips to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria.

The letter does not indicate that anyone in the school is ill with E. coli.

Storey said the Health Department provided the letter to area districts to use as a resource for parents concerned about the outbreak. Vancouver district officials would not comment on why students at Jefferson and Felida were given the letters but noted the schools share a campus.

It was unclear whether other districts sent out the letter.