Bird flu is bad for poultry and cattle: But not a dire threat for us

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Concerns Rise as H5N1 Bird Flu Spreads to Dairy Cows Across Multiple States The Department of Agriculture has confirmed the presence of the H5N1 bird flu virus in dairy cows nationwide. Testing reveals infections in cattle across nine states, particularly in Texas and New Mexico, with recent cases detected in Colorado. Nirav Shah, principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, highlighted these findings at a May 1 event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Besides dairy cows, a variety of other animals have also contracted H5N1, along with at least one person in Texas. The primary worry among scientists is the potential for human-to-human transmission, although this has not yet occurred and remains uncertain. Shah reassured the public that the current outbreak poses a low risk to general safety, according to the CDC.

Given the rapid evolution of viruses and the dynamic nature of outbreaks, Shah likened the situation to a high-speed train, implying that our understanding of H5N1 will evolve rapidly over time.

KFF Health News provides the latest essential information about the H5N1 bird flu outbreak.”

Who gets bird flu?

Mainly birds. However, in recent years, the H5N1 bird flu virus has increasingly jumped from birds to mammals around the world. The growing list of more than 50 species includes seals, goats, possums, wild cats and bush dogs at a UK zoo. Last year, a minimum of 24,000 sea lions perished due to H5N1 bird flu outbreaks in South America.

What makes the current outbreak in cattle unusual is that it is spreading quickly from cow to cow, while other cases — except infections in sea lions — appear to be limited. Researchers know this because the genetic sequences of the H5N1 viruses taken from cattle this year were almost identical to each other.

Bird flu is bad for poultry and cattle
Bird flu is bad for poultry and cattle

The cattle outbreak is also worrying because the country was caught by surprise. Researchers examining the genomes of the virus suggest it originally jumped from birds to cows late last year in Texas and has since spread among many more cows than have been tested.

” “Our analysis indicates that this has been spreading among cows for approximately four months, right under our noses,” remarked Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Is this the start of the next pandemic?

Not yet. However, it’s a notion worth pondering because a potential bird flu pandemic could be a catastrophic scenario. More than half of people infected with older strains of H5N1 bird flu viruses from 2003 to 2016 have died. Even if mortality rates turn out to be less severe for the H5N1 strain currently circulating in cattle, the repercussions could involve too many people getting sick and hospitals too overwhelmed to deal with other medical emergencies. Although at least one person has been infected with H5N1 this year, the virus cannot cause a pandemic in its current state. To achieve this terrible status, a pathogen must sicken many people on several continents. And to do that, the H5N1 virus would need to infect many people. This will not happen through sporadic transmissions of the virus from farm animals to people. Instead, the virus needs to acquire mutations to spread from person to person, like the seasonal flu, as a respiratory infection transmitted mainly through the air when people cough, sneeze and breathe. As we learned in the depths of Covid-19, airborne viruses are difficult to contain.That hasn’t happened yet. However, H5N1 viruses now have many chances to evolve as they replicate within thousands of cows. Like all viruses, they mutate as they replicate, and mutations that improve the virus’s survival are passed on to the next generation. And because cows are mammals, viruses may be becoming more efficient at thriving inside cells that are more similar to our own than to those of birds.The evolution of a pandemic-ready bird flu virus may be facilitated by a kind of superpower possessed by many viruses. That is, sometimes they exchange their genes with other strains in a process called recombination. In a study published in 2009, Worobey and other researchers traced the origin of the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic to events in which different viruses causing swine flu, bird flu, and human flu mixed and matched their genes inside pigs they were infecting. simultaneously. This time, Worobey warned, pigs don’t need to be involved.

What happens if a person drinks virus-contaminated milk?

Cow’s milk, along with powdered milk and infant formula, sold in stores is considered safe because it is required by law to be pasteurized. This process involves heating milk at high temperatures to kill bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms. Tests have found fragments of H5N1 viruses in milk from grocery stores, but these virus fragments are confirmed to be dead and therefore harmless.

However, unpasteurized “raw” milk has been found to contain live H5N1 viruses, which is why the FDA and other health authorities strongly advise against consuming it. Drinking raw milk could lead to serious illness or worse. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a pandemic is low because the virus, in its current state, does not transmit efficiently from person to person as the seasonal flu does.

What should be done?

There’s a lot at stake! Due to insufficient surveillance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies have allowed the H5N1 bird flu to quietly spread among cattle. To address this, the USDA recently mandated testing of all lactating dairy cattle before they are moved across state lines, with results required to be reported. However, similar to how limiting Covid testing to international travelers in early 2020 enabled the coronavirus to spread unnoticed, testing only cows crossing state lines will overlook numerous cases.

This narrow approach to testing won’t uncover how the virus is spreading within cattle herds — critical information needed for farmers to intervene effectively. One leading theory suggests viruses may be transmitted between cows through milking equipment.

To ramp up testing, Fred Gingrich, executive director of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (a nonprofit representing farm veterinarians), proposed that the government provide financial incentives to cattle farmers who report cases, encouraging increased testing. Without such support, he warned that reporting cases would only compound the financial losses already being felt.

“These outbreaks have a substantial economic impact,” Gingrich explained. ” During an outbreak, farmers may experience a reduction of up to 20% in milk production due to decreased consumption by affected animals, lower overall milk output, and the risk of producing abnormal milk that cannot be sold.”

Gingrich added that while the government has made H5N1 tests free for farmers, they have not allocated funds for veterinarians who are responsible for sampling cows, transporting samples, and handling paperwork. “Tests are actually the least expensive part of the process,” he noted.

If on-farm testing remains challenging, evolutionary virologists can still gain valuable insights by analyzing genomic sequences from H5N1 viruses collected from cattle. Variations in these sequences provide important clues about the origin and progression of the current outbreak, as well as the potential for virus mutations that could pose a threat to human health. However, this critical research has been hindered by the USDA’s slow and incomplete release of genetic data, according to Worobey.

Maurice Pitesky, an avian disease specialist at the University of California-Davis, emphasized the need for government support to help poultry farmers prevent H5N1 outbreaks, which can result in significant bird deaths and carry a persistent risk of spillover. Waterfowl such as ducks and geese are common sources of outbreaks on poultry farms, and researchers can use remote sensing and other technologies to identify areas where these birds are present. By focusing on potential spillover zones, farmers can implement targeted measures such as routine surveillance to detect early signs of infection, using water cannons to deter migrating flocks, relocating farm animals, or temporarily housing them in barns.

What is the risk for individuals who contract H5N1 bird flu?

The situation is unclear. This individual worked closely with dairy cows and experienced a mild case, which included an eye infection. The CDC became aware of this case through its surveillance process. Clinics are supposed to notify state health departments when they diagnose farmworkers with the flu using broad influenza virus tests. State health departments then confirm these tests, and if positive, they send samples to a CDC laboratory for specific H5N1 virus testing.

State health department officials are also closely monitoring around 150 individuals who have been in contact with cattle. They are staying in touch with these farmworkers via phone calls, text messages, or in-person visits to monitor for any development of symptoms. If symptoms arise, these individuals will be tested.

Another method to assess farmworkers would be to test their blood for antibodies against the H5N1 bird flu virus, which could indicate past infection. However, Shah mentioned that health officials have not yet initiated this approach.

“The fact that we’re four months into this and haven’t taken this step isn’t a good sign,” Worobey commented. “I’m not overly concerned about a pandemic right now, but we should be proactive in preventing it.”

 

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