As More Dairy Cattle Contract Avian Flu, Lawmakers Push for a Plan to Prevent Virus from Spreading

By Brendan Scanland

WASHINGTON, D.C. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed a human infection of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) transmitted through dairy cows in Texas. 

It was the first time the virus had been found in a cow and the second human case of avian flu ever reported in the United States. 

Americans are no strangers to the avian flu. In 2022, it was responsible for a significant reduction in egg-laying flocks and record high wholesale egg prices. However, transmission of the virus from bird to animal to human is something the country is not familiar with. 

“The reason this outbreak is unique is because the first case of bird to mammal to human infection has happened in the United States,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D- NY) who is calling on the White House to share its coordination efforts to control the outbreak and prepare for potential further spread. 

“Already, avian flu has driven up egg prices and many farmers across the country have been forced to kill their livestock,” said Sen. Gillibrand. 

Gillibrand says she wants to see a plan to protect the dairy industry, especially in her state, where dairy is critical to the state’s economy.   

“A wider spread of the disease in New York and nationwide could be catastrophic to our local and state economies,” said Gillibrand. 

“Dairy in New York is our leading agricultural commodity. We have about 3,000 dairy farms across the state,” said Steve Ammerman, communications director for the New York Farm Bureau. 

Ammerman says dairy cows are not likely to die from the disease itself but adds that it can impact milk production. 

“There are very few animals or cows that have died from this illness, but it does reduce their milk production for a certain amount of time and that can have economic consequences for our farms as well,” said Ammerman. 

According to the CDC, the current health risk to the general public is low. However, the CDC is encouraging people to avoid raw, or unpasteurized milk. Pasteurization, or the heating process that milk goes through to kill bacteria, can also prevent transmission from an infected cow. 

“One thing that we do know is pasteurization works,” said Ammerman. “All the milk in a grocery store is pasteurized, and according to the FDA, is safe to drink.” 

Despite a low health risk to the public, Ammerman says it’s still important, especially for farmers, to remain vigilant. 

“Right now, it’s an animal health issue, more so than it is a human health issue or a food safety issue. But we still have to be vigilant,” said Ammerman. 

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), dairy herds in nine states, including one in Ohio, have contracted the bird flu. The USDA has ordered that all dairy cows crossing state lines be tested for the virus. 

Although avian flu symptoms tend to be mild among humans, Sen. Gillibrand doesn’t want to test the healthcare system, as it recovers from the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

“The United States isn’t ready to handle another public health crisis. Across the country, hospitals and other public health facilities haven’t had time to recover from COVID. Hundreds of thousands of workers have left their jobs, and those who remain are burning out more frequently than they did before,” said Gillibrand.