A Texas veterinarian helped solve the mystery of bird flu in cows

Dr. Barb Petersen started receiving calls in early March from concerned dairy owners in Texas. They were reporting incidents of crows, pigeons, and other birds mysteriously dying on their farms. The situation took a turn for the worse when news arrived that a significant number of barn cats, particularly on one farm, had also suddenly passed away.

In just a matter of days, the Amarillo veterinarian started receiving reports of ailing cows exhibiting peculiar symptoms: elevated fevers, loss of appetite, and a significant reduction in milk production. Despite conducting tests for common illnesses, the results came back negative.

Petersen, a diligent cattle monitor overseeing over 40,000 cattle across multiple farms in the Texas Panhandle, recently gathered samples from both cats and cows. These samples were then sent to Dr. Drew Magstadt, a close college friend who currently works at the veterinary diagnostic laboratory at Iowa State University.

The tests detected a previously unseen strain of bird flu virus in the samples obtained from cattle. This finding provided the initial evidence that cows can be infected by Type A H5N1, a form of bird flu. The U.S. Agriculture Department has reported that 36 herds in the United States have confirmed cases of the virus as of Wednesday.

“It caught me off guard,” Petersen reminisced. “I couldn’t believe it at first.”

Petersen observed a correlation between sick animals and sick people on almost every farm she visited.

Petersen mentioned that they were actively monitoring the well-being of their employees. He highlighted that some individuals, who were usually very punctual, unexpectedly missed work during that period.

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According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of confirmed H5N1 cases in the United States currently stands at two. The most recent case involves a Texas dairy worker who is believed to have contracted the virus from the cattle outbreak. As of Wednesday, approximately two dozen individuals have undergone testing, and around 100 people are under monitoring since the appearance of the virus in cows. Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, a respiratory diseases official at the CDC, shared these updates with reporters.

According to Daskalakis, the CDC has not observed any abnormal flu trends in regions where there are infected cows. However, there are experts who speculate that the anecdotal reports of sick workers may indicate that more than one person contracted the virus from the animals.

According to Petersen, several workers exhibited flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, and a stuffy nose or congestion. Additionally, some workers also experienced conjunctivitis, which was previously observed in the Texas dairy worker who was diagnosed with bird flu.

Dr. Gregory Gray, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, has been collecting samples from both livestock and individuals on two farms located in Texas. He mentioned that there have been reports of mild illnesses among the workers on farms where cattle infections have been confirmed.

Conducting his research has proven to be quite challenging. Numerous workers have shown reluctance when it comes to being tested. This could be due to their limited access to healthcare or the fear of sharing their private health information.

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Gray mentioned that without confirmation, there is no way to determine if the sick workers were infected with the bird flu virus or if their illness was unrelated.

Gray suggested that there appears to be a connection between the two factors, both in terms of time and location, leading to a biologically plausible explanation.

According to Petersen, some of the workers who became sick sought medical attention and were provided with oseltamivir, a brand name antiviral drug known as Tamiflu.

According to CDC spokesman Jason McDonald, the medication was offered to farm workers who had been exposed to infected animals or individuals. It is the responsibility of state health officials to assess and administer treatment in accordance with federal guidelines.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson, Chris Van Deusen, health officials in Texas have provided Tamiflu to the individual infected with H5N1, as well as their family members. Additionally, two individuals on a second dairy farm who were exposed to infected animals have also been given the antiviral medication. However, it is uncertain whether others have been offered the same treatment.

According to Dr. Kay Russo, a Colorado veterinarian who provided consultation on the outbreak, farmers have shown reluctance in granting access to health officials on their land.

According to Russo, this disease is often seen as a scarlet letter, carrying a significant stigma.

Russo emphasized the need for conducting comprehensive testing on cattle, individuals, and milk.

“We were unable to measure what we did not know,” she admitted. “Regrettably, the situation escalated rapidly before we could effectively respond.”

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Gray expresses concern about a new federal mandate that mandates testing for all lactating dairy cows being transported across state lines. This requirement may further impede cooperation among farmers. Gray explains that farmers may choose not to conduct the testing, opting instead to wait out the outbreak in hopes of avoiding any potential complications.

According to Gray, the lack of cooperation from workers and farmers in undergoing testing is significantly impeding our ability to comprehend the spread of the virus, the current scale of the outbreak, and its potential rate of growth.

He expressed his concern about the impact, describing it as extremely negative.

Petersen empathizes with the concerns of workers and farmers and commends those farmers who allowed her to collect the initial samples that confirmed the outbreak. She takes a moment to reflect on the implications of the test results.

“When you hear about this, your first thoughts go to the cows, the individuals who take care of them, and the families who own these farms,” she explained. “Your mind starts to consider the broader implications and long-term impact. It’s natural to feel a sense of worry and concern for all those involved.”

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