Feds Announce New Measures to Monitor, Prevent Bird Flu

Feds Announce New Measures to Monitor, Prevent Bird Flu
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Key Takeaways

  • H5N1 avian flu could be a health calamity if it ever mutated to spread easily between people

  • An ongoing outbreak of H5N1 among herds of dairy cows has experts concerned, so the federal government announced new funding Friday to help contain the virus

  • Dairy farmers will be compensated for efforts to keep workers and animals safe, and funding aimed at viral research and monitoring is another priority

FRIDAY, May 10, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- H5N1 avian flu is now infecting U.S. dairy cows and the federal government on Friday announced a myriad of initiatives aimed at preventing the virus' mutation and spread in humans.

The illness is typically not fatal in bovines, but monitoring and prevention on the nation's farms is costly, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the aid will make it cheaper and easier for farmers to deal with H5N1 when it is discovered infecting a herd.

"Today, USDA is announcing assistance for producers with H5N1 affected premises to improve on-site biosecurity in order to reduce the spread," the agency said in a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services. "In addition, USDA is taking steps to make available financial tools for lost milk production in herds affected by H5N1." 

USDA also wants to safeguard the health of dairy workers, who could become human reservoirs for the H5N1 virus. 

Right now, its very tough to transmit bird flu person-to-person, and only one human, a Texas dairy worker, is known to have contracted a (mild) case of the disease during the latest outbreak.

But the threat of H5N1 mutating inside people so that it can be easily transmitted weighs heavily on the minds of infectious disease experts. That's because -- in the rare cases around the world where it has occurred -- the illness has killed half of those infected.

So, USDA said it plans to now give $2,000 "per affected premises per month" to supply personal protective equipment to farm staff to help keep H5N1 infection in people at bay. 

Money will also be earmarked to help train farm workers in biosecurity, and to cover the costs of protecting people such as milk haulers, veterinarians, feed truckers and AI technicians who often move between various farms.

Another $2,000 will be earmarked to help farms pay for "heat treatment to dispose of milk in a bio secure fashion," USDA said. "Heat treatment performed in accordance with standards set by FDA is the only currently available method considered to effectively inactivate the virus in milk."

Finally, $10,000 per farm will be budgeted to pay for veterinary bills incurred because of the need for H5N1 monitoring and testing, and for the care of infected cows.

"Taken together, these tools represent a value of up to $28,000 per premises to support increased biosecurity activities over the next 120 days," USDA and HHS said in a joint statement. 

Compensating farmers

If milk is deemed to be at risk for infection and must be dumped, USDA will help "compensate producers for loss of milk production," the agency said.

"While dairy cows that have been infected with H5N1 generally recover well, and there is little mortality associated with the disease, it does dramatically limit milk production, causing economic losses for producers with affected premises," the USDA said. 

The agency also plans to put in place safeguards that would limit the movement of dairy herds state-to-state, to help prevent the spread of H5N1.

"USDA will make $98 million in existing funds available ... to fund these initiatives," the agency said. "If needed, USDA has the authority, with Congressional notification, to make additional funds available."

Viral monitoring

The Department of Health and Homeland Security has also earmarked more than $101 million to better understand and help fight H5N1.

"Public and animal health experts and agencies have been preparing for avian influenza outbreak for 20 years," the agency said. "Our primary responsibility at HHS is to protect public health and the safety of the food supply, which is why we continue to approach the outbreak with urgency."

H5N1 outbreaks in animals will be closely monitored, and there will also be "CDC monitoring of the virus to detect any changes that may increase risk to people," HHS said. 

"CDC has also asked health departments to distribute existing PPE stocks to farm workers, prioritizing those who work with infected cows," the agency added.

Additional CDC funding totaling $93 million is targeted "to bolster testing and laboratory capacity, surveillance, genomic sequencing, support jurisdictions and partner efforts to reach high risk populations and initiate a new wastewater surveillance pilot," according to the news release.

This will include the production of "one thousand additional influenza diagnostic test kits (equaling nearly around one million additional tests) for virologic surveillance."  

Another $14 million is earmarked to further the genomic sequencing of viral strains by the CDC. It's especially important to "analyze circulating H5N1 viruses to determine whether current Candidate Vaccine Viruses (CVVs) would be effective and develop new ones if necessary," the news release said.

Finally, $3 million in extra funding is being targeted to more widespread and better testing of wastewater -- a valuable tool in monitoring the development and potential spread of new strains of H5N1.

More information

Find out more about avian flu at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, news release, May 10, 2024

What This Means For You

As H5N1 avian flu spreads among U.S. dairy cows, the federal government announced major new funding aimed at preventing outbreaks that could harm humans.

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