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Concerns Rise As ‘Gigantic’ Bird Flu Outbreak Spreads Rapidly In US Dairy Herds

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More than three years into a worldwide outbreak of bird flu, the virus continues to expand in the U.S., significantly impacting food production and animals. Over 80 million chickens, thousands of wild birds, and dozens of mammal species, including a polar bear, have been infected.

The virus is now running rampant among dairy cows, appearing in 94 herds across 12 states since March. The latest animal to test positive was an alpaca on an Idaho farm. “It’s gigantic, the scope and scale of the presence of the disease,” said Julianna Lenoch, national coordinator for the Department of Agriculture’s wildlife disease program.

This scale and related concerns are reflected in rising egg prices, renewed warnings to cook ground beef and eggs thoroughly, and extraordinary measures dairy and poultry farmers are being asked to take to prevent its spread. As the outbreak lingers and expands, there are growing concerns about the risks to humans and the role of warmer temperatures and extreme weather events in exacerbating this and future pandemics.

The highly contagious H5N1 virus has spread to six continents since first being detected in Europe and Asia in 2020. It has been reported across North and Central America, most of South America, and even in Antarctica last fall, raising alarms about potential consequences for some of the world’s most beloved birds: penguins.

The U.S. has experienced avian influenza outbreaks in the past, but this one is longer-lasting and more widespread. Domestic poultry flocks, whether in commercial operations or backyard settings, have been infected in every state except Louisiana and Hawaii, with more than 5.9 million birds affected since May 1 alone.

Since 2022, infections have been reported in 14 million turkeys and 80 million chickens, including 71 million egg layers. Farmers must cull chickens and turkeys when a poultry flock tests positive, a measure that experts say has driven up the cost of eggs.

Infected mammals have been found in 31 states, with the greatest number of infections in foxes, mice, striped skunks, mountain lions, cats, and harbor seals. Research indicates that the prolonged presence and spread of the virus increase the risk of genetic mutations that could make it easier to transmit between animals and people. “The longer we have virus out there, the more possibility there is for changes,” said Lenoch, who oversees the federal program tracking the virus in wild birds.

While humans can contract bird flu, the risk in the U.S. remains very low, federal officials reiterated in a recent briefing. They advised the public to be “alert but not alarmed.” Since the virus arrived during the winter of 2021-2022, four people in the U.S. have tested positive.

All were exposed on farms, with three cases this year involving dairy cows. Two patients reported conjunctivitis, or pink eye, while the third also experienced upper respiratory symptoms. No deaths have occurred in the U.S., though fatalities have been reported internationally.

For the general public, everything but raw milk is considered safe if cooked thoroughly. Cooking destroys any remnants of the virus that might be present in egg yolks or ground beef from once-infected dairy cows.

Pasteurization kills the active virus in milk, although harmless traces remain and are found in an estimated 20% of the nation’s milk supply. The FDA has asked states that allow the sale of raw milk to restrict it as a precautionary measure.

Federal agencies and researchers are concerned that the virus might evolve to become more contagious among humans.

For now, human infection is difficult and has not been transmitted from person to person. Without stringent measures to prevent repeated viral transmission between wild and domestic animals, the risk to humans could grow.

The USDA and CDC are urging farmers to enhance efforts to prevent the spread by cleaning and disinfecting equipment, especially when the same equipment is used for manure and feed, and to better protect farm employees. Preventing farm-to-farm spread is “really critical,” officials said.

The outbreak is unique in its global expansion and the number of bird and mammal species it has infected, concluded a study by Tufts University researchers. “Though the risk to humans remains low, this unexpected outbreak well illustrates the continued need for vigilance and further study,” the study stated.

Avian influenza spreads globally among birds, particularly migratory waterfowl like ducks, which are natural reservoirs. As they migrate, infected birds shed the virus in mucus, saliva, and feces. In previous outbreaks, wild birds would often carry the virus without symptoms. However, with the current strain, wild birds have been getting sick and dying in large numbers.

The virus raises many concerns, not only for human health and agriculture but also because it’s killing wildlife such as seabirds, raptors, and marine mammals, said Diann Prosser, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Eastern Ecological Science Center.

The spillover into dairy cows is rare, and officials aren’t sure how it started. One study suggested it began with wild birds infecting a cow in the Texas Panhandle, which then spread to Michigan and other states. Investigations are ongoing.

Typically, outbreaks burn out as wild birds build immunity and stop spreading the virus, but this one is taking longer than usual.

Scientists don’t fully understand all transmission methods, but most involve bird droppings. Wild waterfowl are the main carriers, said Maurice Pitesky, a professor in poultry health and food safety epidemiology at UC Davis. The first U.S. birds found with the virus were wild ducks hunted in the Carolinas. Duck hunters have been invaluable in working with officials to get wild waterfowl tested, said Lenoch.

Pitesky listed examples of transmission methods:

  • Virus spreads from wild bird droppings in farm ponds or buildings.
  • It can become aerosolized and passed through the air.
  • Free-roaming cats contracted the virus from drinking raw milk.
  • Animals eat infected birds.
  • Farm employees can track in shavings or dirt carrying the virus from wetlands and fields.
  • Farm equipment can carry infected materials between farms.

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