Expert at Utah State University explains bird flu risks and transmission between cows and humans

May 2, 2024, 6:03 PM | Updated: May 3, 2024, 9:14 am

LOGAN — Utah State University professors are keeping an eye on the status of avian influenza, also known as the bird flu, across the country. There are no confirmed cases in Utah, but they’re still being extra careful.

There are 34 dairy herds that have been infected with the bird flu in nine different states. There are 30,000 herds in the United States.

Dr. Bruce Richards, who specializes in dairy studies at Utah State University, said most cows recover from the illness.

“It is not fatal in dairy cattle like in poultry. So that’s also good news for the dairy industry, is that it’s not fatal for us,” Richards said. “Herds that are infected do not have to depopulate their entire herd.”

He said the initial infection of the current outbreak came from wild birds that brought the flu to a farm.

“It’s an airborne disease,” Richards said. “Keep (birds) out of the feed to keep (the virus) out of the dairy barn.”

Richards said it is also found in milk.

“The good news for us as humans is that our receptors for (the bird flu) are lower in our lungs, and so infection in humans is rare. I mean, people work with dairy cows every day and they have to be milked every day. People handle them every day. And so far we’ve only had one positive case (in Texas),” Richards said.

USU’s dairy farm is carefully monitoring its cattle.

“Next month, we’re actually going to have a dairy producer field day where we’re going to train dairy farmers on good biosecurity practices, good ways to keep themselves safe, to keep their animals safe, and then also to control wild bird populations on the dairy farm,” Richards said.

Richards recommends farmers or those who regularly interact with cows wear rubber gloves and even masks.

“Proper personal gear in the dairy parlor is important,” Richards said. “If you’re going between herds, wearing plastic booties or rubber boots that can be washed can help decrease the spread.”

He said the milk from sick cows needs to be thrown out, as raw milk comes with risks.

“Pasteurized milk is still safe to drink because pasteurization will inactivate the virus,” Richards said.

The USDA recently made it mandatory for lactating dairy cattle to test negative for bird flu before crossing a state’s border.

“As far as cow-to-cow transmission, it’s important that we try and reduce movement of lactating dairy cows between dairy farms,” Richards said.

A manager at the dairy farm said they’re also being cautious with their robotic milk machines to prevent transmission. They said consumers should feel comfortable buying milk.

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Expert at Utah State University explains bird flu risks and transmission between cows and humans