VANCOUVER -- The number of suspected E. coli cases linked to drinking raw milk continued to climb as health officials Tuesday awaited the results of more test samples taken at the Woodland farm where the milk was produced.
A total of 18 people -- including 15 children younger than 13 -- now are thought to have been infected with E. coli O157:H7, a potentially deadly pathogen found in cow colons. All of those with symptoms had drunk unpasteurized milk from Dee Creek Farm, with two new cases discovered Monday: a child in Cowlitz County and an adult in Clark County.
The outbreak became apparent Dec. 12 when six Clark County children were reported ill.
Parents of two sick children have contacted the Seattle law firm of Marler Clark, which specializes in cases of food-borne illnesses. Drew Falkenstein, an associate in the firm, said he will meet with one of the families today in Vancouver.
William Marler, the firm's managing partner, won a $15.6 million settlement for a girl in a 1993 Jack-in-the-Box E. coli case that sickened 600 people, most in Washington, and killed four.
Lawyers will look into farm and state liability in compensating the ill children, some of whom could eventually develop kidney problems as a result of the E. coli exposure, Falkenstein said.
The state halted distribution of Dee Creek Farm's milk last week.
Preliminary testing at the Washington State Department of Agriculture laboratory indicated that milk taken from Dee Creek Farm and from a patron's home contain E. coli. Additional testing is needed to determine whether it is the E. coli O157:H7 strain confirmed in seven of the 18 sick people and whether its DNA fingerprint matches that found in four of the confirmed cases.
If it is, that would pinpoint the dairy as the source of the illness, said Marni Storey, public health manager for the Clark County Health Department.
Agriculture officials took other samples, including cow fecal matter, at the farm Thursday and Friday, and those test results also are pending.
Calls to Dee Creek Farm were not returned.
Meanwhile, two hospitalized elementary-age children who drank the unpasteurized milk continue to improve after days in critical condition.
Washington law allows the direct sale of milk from six licensed dairies.
Dee Creek Farm is not licensed.
Details of the farm's operations were unclear. Melody Barone, a raw-milk drinker in Mount Vernon, said cleanliness is vital for safe unpasteurized milk, which she said is rich in nutrients.
A farmer following good practices wipes the cow's udders with an iodine-based cleaner before and after milking, keeps the barn and equipment clean, and is careful not to transfer cow fecal matter if milking by hand, Barone said. Also, grass-fed cows are far less likely to develop E. coli than are cows who are fed grain, which contains a protein they cannot digest, she said.
Billie Johnson, who with her husband, Dave, began producing raw milk three months ago at her Prineville-area farm, said she uses commercial milk jugs only once to avoid contamination.
Her cows' milk is clean, she said, because she uses Grade A certified milking equipment, cleans frequently and stores milk is an area away from the milking parlor.
Dr. Justin Denny, Clark County's health officer, said a sterile milking area cannot be guaranteed. Cow fecal matter has been found on barn roof beams as a result of flatulence, he said.
Health claims about raw milk "aren't worth the risk," Denny said.