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Avian flu: A pandemic waiting to happen?

The close proximity of infected domesticated animals, such as cattle, to humans increases the likelihood that the virus may adapt and evolve into a completely human pathogen. According to the panelists, another pandemic could be triggered if that occurs.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and State veterinary and public health officials are investigating an illness among dairy cows / CDC

Avian flu also known as bird flu is afflicting the poultry and dairy industry. Human cases of the virus have recently been reported.

Two cases of farm workers contracting the H5N1 (bird flu) virus from dairy cows have been recently announced by the CDC. The workers were from Michigan and Texas. Both infected individuals this year exhibited no other symptoms other than conjunctivitis, commonly known as "pink eye."

There may be a lot more cases of bird flu in humans than the two reported so far

“There may probably be a lot more cases,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of Medicine and director of the immunocompromised host infectious diseases program, UCSF speaking at an Ethnic Media Services briefing on May 24. “There are anecdotal reports of many dairy workers actually going to community clinicians who didn't really expect that to possibly be influenza so they didn't undergo testing. I think they just got eye ointment.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has admitted that some farmers who produce dairy have been reluctant to allow government inspectors access to their fields for testing. Reportedly, sick farm workers have been hesitant to get tested for H5N1 flu because, like most people, they do not get paid when they miss work due to illness. 

“The farmworkers don't get paid if they are sick,“ said Dr. Maurice Pitesky, associate professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine at the briefing.

“Just like all diseases we probably have more underreporting in a disease like this because you have a lot of folks that work in the poultry and dairy industry who might be undocumented,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, professor of Biology and Chief Virologist of the Global Health Research Complex Texas A&M University. “We don't even know how many people have asymptomatic infection.”

There's probably a fear of testing after their experience with COVID. “If a bunch of people get diagnosed with the infection, even if they have no symptoms, the farm may have to shut down for some time,” he said.”So these are all the barriers that we have to face in addition to other barriers to access health care like linguistic, differences in the population’s education and just fear.”

The federal government has responded with incentives aimed at stopping the spread of the virus. 
 

How humans can catch bird flu. The spread of bird flu to an increasing number of species and its widening geographic reach have raised the risks of humans being infected by the virus, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH). / WOAH

The federal government incentivizes farms to test

The close proximity of infected domesticated animals, such as cattle, to humans increases the likelihood that the virus may adapt and evolve into a completely human pathogen. According to the panelists, another pandemic could be triggered if that occurs.

In late March, the first case of bird flu in cows was confirmed by the USDA. A dairy cow tested positive for H5N1 influenza, a highly pathogenic form of bird flu that scientists have watched closely since it was detected in 1996. Since then, more than 40 herds have tested positive in nine states, reported CNN.

The US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture earmarked about $98 million to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to fund the program.

The government will pay up to $28,000 per farm over the next four months to support specific steps to prevent the spread of bird flu in dairy cattle. The United States does not vaccinate its farm animals. 

Is vaccination the answer?

“When you vaccinate you protect against disease, you don't protect against infection,“ said Dr. Maurice Pitesky. “We are afraid of asymptomatic spread of the virus. Besides, we are a major exporter of poultry products, so globally you're not allowed to export poultry products if you're in a country that vaccinates.”

“Vaccination has to be used thoughtfully. We have to have effective surveillance to make sure we're not kind of under the radar having a dramatic spread of the virus.”
Testing is the answer, followed by depopulation of an affected flock. “That's because viruses can't replicate in dead cells.”
 

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