Officials outline bird flu responses

Cattle import restrictions are in place in 17 states due to confirmed positives of highly pathogenic avian influenza in some dairy herds. (Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

Four states—Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico — have signed up to participate in the Voluntary H5N1 Dairy Herd Status Pilot Program that was announced May 30, and a dozen others are in talks to join, officials said.

The announcement was part of a June 25 call-in press conference that highlighted simultaneous updates and releases by several agencies fighting the outbreak of the H5N1 virus, known as avian influenza or bird flu, in dairy cattle. Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took part.

 The virus has spread to more than 100 bird species and dozens of mammal species around the world. Cows in 12 states have been infected, as well as foxes, mice, striped skunks, mountain lions, harbor seals, and alpacas.

The overall risk to the general public is still rated low. Demetre Daskalakis, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said that of the 600 to 700 people with exposure to infected livestock or poultry that have been tested, 51 have shown flu-like symptoms, but only three have been diagnosed with H5N1. There is no evidence of sustained human-to-human H5N1 virus transmission, and limited, non-sustained human-to-human H5N1 virus transmission has not been reported worldwide since 2007.

To help the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service provide rapid response activities, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack approved the transfer of $824 million from the Commodity Credit Corporation to APHIS to directly support the response efforts. This funding allows APHIS to continue its work with state and local partners to quickly identify and address cases of HPAI/H5N1 in poultry and livestock.

The money will support anticipated diagnostics, field response activities, pre-movement testing requirements, other necessary surveillance and control activities, surveillance of wildlife, the Agricultural Research Service’s work in developing vaccines for HPAI in cattle, turkeys, pigs and goats, and ARS and the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s food safety studies.

About 20 herds are currently enrolled in financial support programs, and USDA is expanding outreach efforts. Compensation to dairy herd owners for losses incurred to the virus will be part of future funding announcements.                 

Don Prater, acting director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition for the FDA, said FDA “continues to assess the milk safety system.” The FDA’s first sampling survey from April through May found no virus in 297 retail samples of milk and milk products. The FDA’s second sampling survey is testing about 155 dairy products for H5N1 collected at retail locations. Products to be tested include fluid milk, aged raw milk cheese, pasteurized milk and pasteurized cheeses, cream cheese, butter and ice cream.

The samples collected include dairy products processed in states that were not included in the agency’s first phase of research. Additional samples are being taken from areas included in its previous survey to provide a representative picture based on the level of dairy product production in certain regions. The FDA is also looking at continuous-flow pasteurization systems to see if they neutralize the virus. It will share results and updates as they become available.

Scientists are investigating various infection pathways, including aerosol transmission. Eric Deeble, acting senior adviser for H5N1 Response for the USDA, said the dairy supply chain is safe. USDA officials regard an entire herd as infected that has one infected animal.

There is no known case of H5N1 infection in cattle where the herd was not in physical contact with other herds, either through equipment or people. The transmission may be through milk and/or mammary tissues. Officials strongly advise consumers not to consume raw milk—which is already barred from interstate commerce–or products made from raw milk. Wastewater from dairies is also being tested.

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].