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BIRD FLU: New Cases, New concerns

The avian influenza crisis, which appeared to be fading from the headlines, re-emerged this week, with multiple developments that will keep it at the top of the agenda for policy makers for a while. The worst-case scenario continues to be a mutation that makes humans more vulnerable to the virus. But even if that doesn’t happen, the risk to livestock and dairy producers, through production losses or reduced demand due to wary consumers, is elevated.

Dairy Impact Growing

Minnesota became the tenth state this week in which a case of bird flu has been detected at a dairy farm. Oddly, the list does not include top dairy producers California and Wisconsin. The CDC reports that 83 dairy herds have found the bird flu, but most officials think its actual spread is much wider than officially reported.

Meanwhile, the virus may be having a bigger impact than was initially assumed. Reuters reported on Thursday that in five states, dairy cows were slaughtered because of the disease. Up to this point, all of the reports of illness have been mild, with cows reported to be lethargic, and producing less milk. The Reuters report showed that cows in South Dakota, Michigan, Texas, Ohio and Colorado were slaughtered after contracting the virus. But the number of severe cases is still likely small. One 1,700 cow dairy in South Dakota put down a dozen cows that didn’t recover from the virus, and another dozen that developed secondary infections.

Still Spreading in Birds

While much of the attention has been on dairies, the current outbreak started with birds in 2022, and it is still affecting poultry farms. Last week, Iowa’s governor issued a disaster declaration after the discovery of bird flu at a large egg farm that resulted in the culling of 4 million chickens. Further north, a large egg farm outside of Minneapolis had to destroy 1.4 million chickens after bird flu was detected. Since the outbreak started two years ago, an estimated 92 million birds in the U.S. have been destroyed.

Perhaps the most damaging development this week has been detection of the virus in mice. USDA said that 11 mice in New Mexico have tested positive for bird flu. Along with the concern about the virus spreading to a new animal, the detection in mice also brings bird flu potentially much closer to humans.

Separately, a study found that mice who consumed raw milk were much more likely to contract and die from bird flu than those who hadn’t. The New Mexico mice were found near a dairy, leading to speculation that they contracted the virus from raw milk. Ag and public health officials continue to point out that pasteurized milk is safe.

There have been a handful of confirmed human cases in the U.S. this spring, with symptoms mostly mild. But this week officials reported the death of a man in Mexico from bird flu. However, the man was bedridden and suffering from several other conditions. The bird flu strain was also different from the one that has been impacting U.S. dairies.

USDA Response

Some public health officials have been highly critical of the federal response to the bird flu outbreak, arguing that there needs to be much more aggressive monitoring. This week ,USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that he was designating $824 million from the Commodity Credit Corporation to aid in the response. The money will go toward diagnostics and field responses to outbreaks, among other items.

Also as part of that announcement, USDA announced the creation of a “Voluntary H5N1 Dairy Herd Status Pilot Program” that will open up new testing options for dairy herds that have tested negative for bird flu for three straight weeks. Once a dairy has reached that threshold, they can conduct tests through bulk milk collections, rather than animal tests, and still be allowed to transport dairy cows across state lines.

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