Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dangers of Raw Milk

Earlier this year, I stood before the Texas House of Representatives’ Public House Committee testifying on behalf of Texas physicians about the positive public health impacts of pasteurization and the health risks associated with raw milk. I voiced strong opposition to House Bill 75 through which lawmakers proposed expanding the sale of raw milk so that farmers could sell their raw milk at locations other than at the farm.

There was significant vocal support for the measure at the hearing, and despite the lack of any evidence of health benefits from consuming raw milk, I was taken aback by the amount of misinformation on raw milk. There were numerous personal stories told about what many believe are health benefits of drinking raw milk by parents, professionals, and adolescents. These stories seemed to overshadow over 100 years of evidence of the important role and health benefits of pasteurization and dangers posed by the harmful bacteria that can be transmitted from unpasteurized milk and milk products — E. coli 0157, Brucella, Campylobacter, and Salmonella to name a few.

I’ve seen the ill-effects of infections with these bacteria. I’ve had to hold the hand of a mother who transmitted Listeria from consumed unpasteurized cheese to her baby days before her baby was born. We walked the journey of near-death, guilt, and overwhelming sense of “had I only known” together as I cared for her infant as he clung to life in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Yesterday morning, I read a health alert from California about five children made ill by E. coli 0157:H7 suspected from consumption of unpasteurized milk — the only common reported food exposure among the children. It reinforced the need for discussion of pasteurization with families and warning of the health risks, especially for the most susceptible of our patients — the elderly and young, pregnant women, and those who are chronically ill — of consuming raw milk products. We have a responsibility to raise the awareness of all of these unnecessary and preventable illnesses. The outbreak in California is a grave reminder of just how dangerous raw milk products can be, and just how serious the risks are for children and others most at risk. We need to make sure our patients understand the value of pasteurization. I encourage physicians to talk to everyone, but especially their most at-risk patients, of the dangers of raw milk and dispel any misconceptions.

Kimberly Avila Edwards MD, FAAP 
Medical Director, Healthy Living Happy Living/Vida Sana Vida Feliz 
Texas Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity 
Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas

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