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Lawmakers gather information after Texas bird flu case

A multiagency effort including the CDC, USDA and FDA has been launched

The highly contagious bird flu virus can impact both domestic and wild birds and is deadly to poultry.
The highly contagious bird flu virus can impact both domestic and wild birds and is deadly to poultry. (Roll Call file photo)

The first human case of avian influenza in Texas this week has prompted Congress to gather information about the risks to public health and agriculture.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held a bipartisan briefing with congressional agriculture staff about the person infected after exposure to infected dairy cattle, according to a congressional aide. And members of Congress plan to schedule a meeting with the Agriculture Department, which announced last month that “there is no concern about the safety of the commercial milk supply or that this circumstance poses a risk to consumer health.”

The human case of bird flu in Texas, the second reported in the United States, comes as the House and Senate Agriculture committees are drafting a new farm bill that typically lasts for about five years and includes funding for the animal health system.

The last farm bill, enacted in 2018, provided $300 million for animal and health entities and initiatives between fiscal years 2019 and 2023. Congress extended that farm bill by a year, and it expires on Sept. 30.

The Texas case has launched a multiagency effort with the CDC, USDA, Food and Drug Administration, and Strategic Preparedness and Response Administration, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Federal agencies are also collaborating with state-level entities, including veterinarian, animal and human health groups.

Ben Goldey, communications director for Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee, said the panel has “been closely monitoring this ongoing issue, and there isn’t a single Member of the Committee who hasn’t expressed concerns about this outbreak.”

“We appreciate USDA’s ongoing coordination and regular updates and remain confident in USDA and CDC’s assertion that there is no current threat to the food supply,” Goldey said.

Bird flu, also known as highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1, or HPAI, has been on the committee’s radar since it was first detected in the U.S. in 2021. The highly contagious virus can impact both domestic and wild birds and is deadly to poultry. It poses a major threat to the poultry industry because it can eliminate entire flocks within days, slowing down domestic and international production.

During a February committee hearing, Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., expressed concern about the impact of the virus on the nation’s poultry producers. The department has confirmed that in the past 30 days, one commercial poultry flock in South Dakota tested positive, affecting more than 31,000 birds.

“And in South Dakota, we’ve got a lot of turkeys. We’ve got a lot of pheasants. We’ve seen, as a country, 81 million dead birds as a result of ‘high path,’” Johnson said. “I mean, I think it is a terrible situation.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack responded to Johnson’s concerns and said the department is “probably 18 months or so away from being able to identify a vaccine that would be effective for this particular HPAI that we’re dealing with now.”

Vilsack said the primary issue with the vaccine is that the virus mutates, and they are trying to develop a way to deliver the vaccine to thousands of birds. The department also reported that more than 82 million birds have been affected across 48 states since 2022.

Typically, infected birds are culled, which involves overheating poultry in a barn until the infected flock dies. Several animal welfare organizations have flagged concerns about culling.

Impacted farms are eligible to receive grants through the federal Livestock Indemnity Program. The program will cover 75 percent of the average fair market value of livestock.
As of April 1, the department has detected the spread of the virus from poultry to dairy herds in Texas, Kansas, Michigan and New Mexico. The National Veterinary Services Laboratories are also analyzing a herd in Idaho that has a presumed positive.

According to the USDA, there are existing guardrails to prevent the spread of animal-borne diseases to humans. Dairy farms are required to destroy or divert milk originating from sick cows. And pasteurization, which is required for interstate milk commerce, has been proven to kill inactive bacteria and viruses, including bird flu.

The FDA is also not currently aware of any infected milk or cheese entering interstate commerce and does not recommend the selling of raw or unpasteurized dairy products.

The Texas individual who was infected with bird flu got sick after direct contact with dairy cattle and was told to isolate while receiving treatment. According to the CDC, the patient reported eye redness, consistent with conjunctivitis.

“This infection does not change the H5N1 bird flu human health risk assessment for the U.S. general public, which CDC considers to be low,” the CDC said in a press release.

In 2022, a person in Colorado tested positive for the disease from contact with poultry and experienced fatigue symptoms but has since recovered.

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