Health

Bird flu cow-testing financial incentive introduced for U.S. farmers

Federal authorities on Friday pledged nearly $200 million to try to control the spread of bird flu on dairy farms. Some of that money would go directly to farms to help them reduce the spread of the virus, cover veterinary costs and compensate farmers who lost milk due to sick cows.

The money is also intended to encourage testing of dairy cows and the people who work closely with them – a key step, experts say, in understanding the true scale of avian flu, also known as H5N1, in the United States.

“Incentives work really well to better understand epidemiology,” said Katelyn Jetelina, who tracks diseases for a website called “Your Local Epidemiologist.”

Currently, it is not required that dairy cows be tested unless they are moved across state lines, according to a recent federal order. Otherwise, the decision is up to the farmers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said that since this federal order took effect in late April, the National Animal Health Laboratory Network has reported 905 tests for avian influenza in cattle. Of these, 112 were positive.

(At a press briefing Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said only about 80 cows have been tested since the order took effect. A USDA spokesperson later clarified that since the order took effect, 80 additional tests had been conducted daily.)

As of Friday, 42 herds across nine states – Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota, Ohio and Texas – had been affected by the outbreak.

“These 42 family farms are hurting, and we want to make sure we’re there to give them help and assistance,” Vilsack said.

The USDA will provide $98 million to affected farms over the next four months, which could equate to $28,000 per farm, Vilsack said.

Jetelina called the program a “fantastic” but “long-awaited” measure. The outbreak among dairy cattle was first announced in late March.

“The incentive program is a huge step forward,” especially for small operations, said Dr. Keith Poulsen, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. That’s probably not enough, however, for large farms that could lose more than $3 million due to a bird flu outbreak, he said.

“This won’t be fixed tomorrow,” he said. But incentives “like this lay the foundation for improvement, and they also give us a precedent if and when we face the next big outbreak.”

The Department of Health and Human Services will invest an additional $101 million to step up surveillance of people who have been exposed to sick animals, contact tracing and genetic testing of the virus to detect mutations.

Part of these funds will also be dedicated to monitoring the virus in wastewater. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to begin releasing this data as early as Monday, a CDC spokesperson told NBC News.

A separate monitoring system called WastewaterSCAN, which tracks 191 sites in 41 states, shows high levels of influenza A in the Midwest and Northeast. This is unusual in mid-May, well after the typical flu season. Avian flu is a type of influenza A virus.

These findings prompted WastewaterSCAN researchers to take a closer look at wastewater treatment sites in Texas, where the avian flu outbreak is believed to have begun.

Further testing indicated that, at the Texas sites, “what we were seeing was most likely attributable to an H5 influenza virus,” said Marlene Wolfe, assistant professor of environmental health at Emory University and director of the WastewaterSCAN program.

Although wastewater testing can detect influenza A, it cannot distinguish whether the virus came from a human or an animal, according to the CDC.

The findings, coupled with recent announcements that fragments of the avian flu virus had been detected in 1 in 5 pasteurized milk samples, indicate that avian flu could be spreading undetected. Further testing confirmed that the milk, as well as other pasteurized dairy products, including sour cream and cottage cheese, were safe to eat or drink.

Only one person, a dairy worker in Texas, has tested positive for the virus in the current outbreak. His illness was mild and his only symptom was pink eye.

But experts have suggested other cases could go unnoticed. Friday’s incentive announcement included a $75 payment to any farm worker who agrees to give blood and nasal swab samples to the CDC.

Meanwhile, experts said the risk of bird flu spreading among the general public remains low.

“Stay aware, but only let it occupy a small part of your brain,” Jetelina said. “There is a good chance that this will run out of steam. »

News Source : www.nbcnews.com
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