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Texas veterinarian helps solve mystery of avian influenza in cattle

Texas veterinarian helps solve mystery of avian influenza in cattle

 


The first call Dr. Barb Petersen received in early March was from a dairy farmer concerned about crows, pigeons and other birds dying on his Texas farm. Then we received word that half of the barn cats on a farm had suddenly died.

Within days, veterinarians in Amarillo heard about sick cows exhibiting unusual symptoms, including high fevers, loss of appetite, and decreased milk production. Tests for typical illnesses were negative.

Petersen, who monitors more than 40,000 cows on more than a dozen farms in the Texas Panhandle, collects samples from cats and cows and works with a college friend and current veterinary diagnostic laboratory at Iowa State University. I sent it to Dr. Drew Magstadt, who works at .

The samples tested positive for the avian influenza virus, which has never been detected in cattle. This is the first demonstration that avian influenza, known as H5N1 type A, can infect cattle. As of Wednesday, infections were confirmed in 36 herds in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It was just amazing,” Petersen recalled. “It was a little bit of disbelief.”

At the same time, Petersen said, nearly every farm with sick animals also saw sick people.

“We were actively checking on humans,” Petersen said. “There were people who took time off from work, even if they had never taken time off from work.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two people have been confirmed to be infected with H5N1 in the United States, most recently in a Texas dairy farm worker involved in an outbreak of cattle. Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, director of respiratory diseases at the CDC, told reporters Wednesday that about 24 people have been tested and about 100 people are being monitored since the virus appeared in cattle.

FILE - Cows photographed at a California dairy on November 23, 2016.

FILE – Cows photographed at a California dairy on November 23, 2016.

Daskalakis said the CDC has not seen any unusual trends in influenza in areas with infected cattle, but some experts believe that anecdotal reports of sick workers indicate multiple people contracted the virus from the animals. He said he had doubts about what he meant by that.

Petersen said some workers had symptoms consistent with the flu, including fever, body aches and stuffy or stuffy noses. Some had conjunctivitis, an eye inflammation detected in a 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, is collecting samples from livestock and people at two farms in Texas. There have also been reports of workers at farms where cattle were confirmed to have been infected with the virus showing mild symptoms.

His research was extremely difficult. Many workers are reluctant to get tested. This may be due to limited access to medical care or fear of revealing personal medical information.

Without confirmation, no one knows whether the sick worker was infected with the bird flu virus or something unrelated, Gray said.

“They seem to be connected in time and space, so it's biologically plausible,” Gray said.

Petersen said some sick workers sought treatment and were offered the antiviral drug oseltamivir, sold under the brand name Tamiflu.

Some farm workers who had contact with infected animals or people have been provided with medication, CDC spokesman Jason MacDonald said. According to federal guidelines, state health officials will be responsible for providing evaluation and treatment.

In addition to the H5N1 case and its household members, Texas health officials have identified two people at Dairy 2 who tested negative but had contact with infected animals, Texas Department of State spokesman Chris Van Dusen said. He said that he provided Tamiflu to health services. He said he did not know if anyone else was provided with antiviral drugs.

Dr. Kay Russo, a Colorado veterinarian who consulted with Dr. Petersen about the outbreak, said farmers are hesitant to let health officials access their land.

“This particular disease is seen as a scarlet letter,” Russo said. “It now has this stigma associated with it.”

Russo called for widespread testing of cows, people and milk.

“You don't know what you don't measure,” she says. “Unfortunately, the horse left the barn much faster than we could mobilize.”

Gray worries that a recent federal order mandating testing of all lactating dairy cows traveling between states could further impede cooperation. All laboratories conducting tests must report positive results to the Department of Agriculture. However, he said many farmers may simply decide not to test in hopes of prolonging the spread of the disease.

Mr Gray said workers' and farmers' reluctance to allow testing was “significantly hindering” our understanding of how the virus spreads, the current scale of the outbreak and how fast it is spreading. .

“It's a negative, very negative impact,” he said.

Petersen said he understands the fears of workers and farmers. She praised the farmers who were willing to allow the first samples to be collected to confirm the outbreak and reflected on what the results meant.

“I immediately think of the cows, the people who take care of them, and the families who run the farms,” she says. “You're thinking about the long-term big picture. Your mind starts going to that whole set of concerns.”

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