US to spend $200 million to contain spread of bird flu on dairy farms

H5N1 was first detected in cows late March, and it’s now spreading among cow herds across several states.
 Dairy cattle feed at a farm
Posted at 7:36 PM, May 14, 2024

The CDC will share wastewater data with the public as they try to track and contain H5N1 bird flu.

It’s part of nearly $200 million in funding the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services announced this past Friday.

H5N1 has spread among cattle across nine U.S. States. To date, the CDC says 46 herds have been affected.

Wastewater is a mix of what’s gone down the drains in the community. Workers at sewer sites and wastewater treatment plants collect samples and send them to research labs that test them for virus-specific genetic data and document the trends for public health.

The CDC’s online dashboard will show all viruses from the influenza A family, not solely H5N1. But it could provide clues to hotspots, since flu activity typically drops down in the summer.

H5N1 was first detected in cows in late March. It’s spreading among cow herds across several states.

In two pre-print studies, wastewater scientists found trends of H5N1 in wastewater starting in February, though neither study could identify the source of the virus.

Dairy cows stand together at a farm.

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Current wastewater tests can not distinguish between cow, human or bird cases.

“Right now the real risk is cattle-to-human contact,” said Scott Pegan, a professor of biomedical sciences at the University of California Riverside, who added that H5N1 is still very rare in humans. Only one person has been sickened during this outbreak. The individual became infected after working with sick dairy cows, and displayed only mild symptoms.

The CDC says grocery store milk is still safe to drink as long as it’s pasteurized and not raw.

About 880 people globally have had H5N1 over the past 21 years, according to the World Health Organization.

“We as society have done quite a bit of research into influenza, and we know some of the hallmarks of what a virus looks like when it’s starting to drift towards humans being a principal host of the virus. So that’s why there’ll be a lot of sequencing of viruses to kind of keep on top to monitor that situation,” said Pegan.

That is also why tracking the different genetic pieces of the H5N1 puzzle — whether it's the virus itself or what is showing up in wastewater — is so important.