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H5N1 Dairy Policy Response and Needs

The avian influenza outbreak in dairy cows has revealed a critical vulnerability at the intersection of animal health and public safety. Todd Gleason reports on how a set of North Dakota State University scientists have assessed the federal response to the latest outbreak and what else they believe might help contain it.

H5N1, known as Avian Influenza or Bird Flu, is causing issues within poultry flocks and dairy herds. The disease also infected one dairy worker earlier this year, although transmission to humans has been rare. It can happen and is the reason the CDC, HHS, and USDA have taken this latest outbreak seriously. The revelation that dairy cows can contract and spread H5N1 has broadened the scope of this disease‚Äôs impact writes three North Dakota State University researchers on the Farmdoc Daily website. It has raised fears of another possible pandemic if the virus adapts to transmit between humans more efficiently. That’s the view of the CDC or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The move of H5N1 into the dairy cattle caused a swift response from U.S. government agencies including USDA and HHS, or Health and Human Services. And while the researchers believe the policy response has been robust within the dairy sector providing financial assistance and biosecurity, there remain key areas of concern. These include how quickly diagnosis of an outbreak can be made in poultry flocks or dairy herds; and the inconsistency of farm or state-level implementation of biosecurity protocols because of costs or logistical complexities; all of which hampers containment efforts.

The NDSU scientists write in the article that “The economic and health implications of these policy gaps are significant”. They note delays in diagnosis and variable biosecurity can lead to greater spread of the disease, increasing the cost of containment and mitigation.   From a public health perspective, ineffective containment and biosecurity can increase the risk of zoonotic transmission, posing health risks to farm workers and the wider community if the virus adapts to more efficient human-to-human spread. To address the current gaps in the response to avian influenza outbreaks in dairy cows, a comprehensive strategy that encompasses improved funding, surveillance, international collaboration, and innovative research is required. This all takes taxpayer funding.