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US approves $200M to curtail spread of bird flu in cows; what USU scientists want you to know

LOGAN — Avian influenza, or bird flu, has been spreading from birds to dairy cows in nine U.S. states. Utah State University scientists want to make sure the public has the facts.

The Biden administration announced Friday that it would give almost $200 million to fight the spread of the flu among dairy cows. Most of the funds will go toward testing and lab fees. Of that, up to $28,000 per dairy farm will be available to contain the spread of the virus and testing. Other funds are available for vaccines, wastewater surveillance and for protecting the commercial milk supply.

“The risk to the public from this outbreak remains low,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said on a call with reporters about the funding, according to Reuters.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has received some calls from the public about bird flu concerns, spokeswoman Baylee Woolstenhulme said. They have been “actively in communication” with farmers across the state.

“This virus does not kill dairy cows nor is this an infectious disease that means the USDA has to implement mandatory slaughter,” said Tom Baldwin, a veterinary pathologist and director of the Utah Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

People can still safely enjoy pasteurized milk and properly cooked meat, said Bruce Richards, assistant professor of animal science and USU Extension dairy specialist.

The standard milk pasteurization process is powerful enough to “inactivate” the flu virus, Baldwin said.

Even if a human does become infected — a possibility if they come in contact with sick or dead animals infected with the virus — symptoms are mild. One Texas farm worker who contracted the virus in early April reported eye inflammation and nothing more.

Though, humans don’t have a major cause for concern, the virus is still an issue for livestock and other animals. And, because little is known about the virus and how it might spread to humans, the U.S. is taking precautions to curtail the spread before it impacts people or food supplies.

Farmers should look for a few things in their dairy cows to minimize herd outbreaks: loose fecal matter, thicker manure, a drop in milk production, thicker milk and low fevers. If a cow does have the flu, farmers should move them to a “hospital pen” and contact a veterinarian.

One thing farmers shouldn’t do is test for the flu en masse. If a cow appears to be healthy, testing it is a waste of time and laboratory supplies, Utah Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory pathologist Carmen Lau said.

“If you are selling cows that are going across state lines, you test them,” Baldwin said. “Or if it appears you have a disease outbreak, you need to test.”

Bird flu is mostly a big deal for birds, Lau said. For chickens and some other birds, it can be fatal.

One or two isolated bird deaths in a backyard chicken coop are likely not a result of the flu. If more than 25% of a flock dies in a short period of time, chicken owners could have an outbreak on their hands.

“When you suddenly find 20 of them dead in a day, that’s avian influenza,” Baldwin said.

Heading into the summer months, the flu will be less of an issue, he said. Less bird migration through Utah and warmer temperatures will slow things down for a while. But a reversal of these conditions, come fall, will likely bring another resurgence of the virus.

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