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Dairy cows harboring ‘highly’ contagious bird flu, USDA says. Where have cases spread?

Charlotte Observer - 4/5/2024

Less than one week after a Texas dairy worker tested positive for the second-ever bird flu case in the United States, at least five other states have also reported the virus in dairy cow populations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

On April 1, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported a case of conjunctivitis, or pink eye, that later tested positive for H5N1, also called avian influenza, according to a news release.

The person had contact with dairy cows,which also tested positive for the virus, before their infection, Texas DSHS said.

It is the first time H5N1 has been detected in dairy cows in the U.S., the agency said.

Now, a total of six states have positive cases.

Idaho, New Mexico, Kansas, Michigan and Ohio join Texas after cows fell ill in all six states, according to data published by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on April 5.

Following the Texas case, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said H5N1, also called HPAI, is not considered a significant threat to the general public, and the risk remains “low,” according to a statement.

The virus is considered “highly pathogenic,” which means it spreads easily, but this refers to its spread in birds, and not humans.

Humans contract H5N1 by interacting with infected animals and touching their eyes or consuming contaminated products, health officials say.

The disease is spread much more easily in animals.

“Wild migratory birds are believed to be the source of infection,” the USDA says. “However, the spread of the illness among the Michigan herd also indicates that HPAI transmission between cattle cannot be ruled out.”

More than 82 million cases of HPAI have been detected in birds, according to the CDC, across 48 states and 1,116 individual outbreaks.

“We are encouraging producers and veterinarians to minimize dairy cattle movement. At this time, we expect that minimizing movement, upholding good biosecurity practices and testing animals before necessary movements will limit disease spread sufficiently to avoid the need for regulatory restrictions or quarantines,” the USDA says.

Agricultural officials say that while the virus is fatal in birds, cows have not shown increased mortality following infection.

Farmers are encouraged to look out for decreased level of milk production, thicker milk consistency, loose feces, lethargy, dehydration and fever within cattle populations as possible signs of the spreading virus, the USDA says.

On April 3, the Food and Drug Administration issued a reminder that the virus can be detected in unpasteurized milk, and consuming the milk could lead to infection.

“Only milk from healthy animals is authorized for distribution into interstate commerce for human consumption,” the FDA said. “Milk from ill (symptomatic) animals is being diverted or destroyed so that it does not enter the human supply.”

Both the FDA and USDA said loss of milk from infected animals is still too minor to impact the supply of dairy products or price for consumers.

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