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Discovering Bird Flu for the First Time in Cows Sparks Concern

05 Apr 2024

Bird flu is back, and for the first time, it has been found in dairy cows and, for just the second time, it has been transmitted to a human.

Texas agricultural officials reported last week that a person had been infected with bird flu after coming into close contact with infected dairy cows in Texas.

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) reported that the patient became ill following contact with dairy cows presumed to be infected with avian influenza, with the patient’s primary symptom being conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye. 

The discovery marks the first time bird flu has been found in dairy cattle, the American Veterinary Medical Association said, and the findings came just days after the virus was detected in goats on a farm in Minnesota as well as in herds in New Mexico, Michigan and Idaho that had recently received cows from Texas.

In an announcement from the CDC, officials said that it is the first human case of the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza (HPAI) in the state of Texas, and the second overall in the U.S. Ir is believed to have been transmitted from a wild bird to a dairy cow, then to a human.

The CDC said its officials, along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the state veterinary and public health authorities, are investigating the illness, which was first detected primarily in older dairy cows. The highly contagious virus was found in unpasteurized clinical samples of milk from cows at two dairy farms in Kansas and one in Texas.

Shortly after the news of the virus hit the news cycle, Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., the nation's largest producer and distributor of fresh eggs, announced a positive test for HPAI at its Parmer County, Texas facility. The reported discovery resulted in the loss of nearly 1.6 million laying hens and 337,000 pullets, or about 4% of the company’s total flock, the company said.

“There are thousands of people, from veterinarians to researchers, across the country who are actively and diligently looking for these types of pathogens every single day,” Dr. Sergio Arispe, a professor at Oregon State University, specializing in herd management, told Farmers Hot Line. “It’s a testament to the vast safety networks in place to catch this type of thing, and catch it early.”

The CDC issued guidance emphasizing, first, the safety of our dairy and beef food supply, adding that the pathogen has not been found, as of yet, to be able to pass through the food chain and is very rarely transmitted human to human.

The virus has not been detected in beef cattle (yet), but the fear has already seeped into the beef market. Bloomberg reported that on April 1, selling intensified after the news of a human case broke. Live cattle futures for June closed down $4.925 to $175.325, while April futures dropped $4.925 to $180.075, with May feeder cattle futures plunging $6.025 to $242.675.

As soon as the words “bird flu” are heard, hysteria isn’t far behind. Experts are stressing the importance of following the protocols already well in place for these types of discoveries. Monitor and report all cases of any illness in both humans and animals and close observe individuals and animals who have been in contact with infected animals.

Just days after the news of the virus appearing in dairy cows broke, Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., the nation's largest producer and distributor of fresh eggs, announced the discovery of HPAI at its Parmer County, Texas facility earlier this week.

The outbreak has resulted in the loss of 1.6 million laying hens and 337,000 pullets, which the company said was about 4% of its entire flock as of March 2.

However, the CDC points out that unlike poultry infections, which are fatal, sick dairy cows tend to recover on their own. Officials also said it’s safe to drink milk since it’s pasteurized before being sold, although milk from sick animals is being destroyed so that it does not enter the food supply. 

Symptoms in humans are typical of a garden-variety flu; fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, and in severe cases, pneumonia, respiratory distress and conjunctivitis. In cows, symptoms can manifest as respiratory issues, listlessness and a noticeable change in milk appearance, texture along with a sudden decrease in milk production. 

Arispe stressed the single-most important aspect after any virus detection on this scale is free and un-siloed communication between everyone from ranch hands to state officials and even from bird enthusiasts.

"Finding and identifying these pathogens as quickly as possible really does take a village,” Dr. Arispe added. "Veterinarians, ranchers, government authorities, even Birders, bring a useful and unique set of skills that are all harnessed to enhance disease surveillance and early identification efforts."

The CDC recommends several measures for ranchers to help prevent the spread of bird flu to cows such as biosecurity practices, constant testing and collaboration with state agricultural authorities. 

The state department of health also issued a health alert to healthcare providers to be vigilant about these symptoms, especially among those who have regular contact with animals.

Bird flu is a disease caused by a family of flu viruses primarily transmitted among birds. 

The CDC and USDA classify avian influenza viruses into two groups: low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) (often seen in wild birds) and HPAI, found mostly in domestic poultry. 

Media reports say bird flu has cost the U.S. government around $2 billion over the past two years, with nearly 60 million birds destroyed, sending the price of eggs and poultry through the roof about two years ago. 

Healthcare providers have also been advised to immediately consult their local health department if they come across patients who are experiencing symptoms and have come into close contact with livestock and cattle.


By Senior Writer, Allen P. Roberts Jr.


Farmers Hot Line is part of the Catalyst Communications Network publication family.