Health | As bird flu spreads on dairy farms, ‘shockingly’ few employees are being tested

Health authorities are concerned about bird flu, which has thus far been detected in three dairy employees – two in Michigan and one in Texas – and in cattle in a dozen states.

The farmworkers' symptoms were mild, and researchers haven’t found that the H5N1 virus, also generally known as bird flu, could be transmitted from individual to individual. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s little risk to the overall population. But flu viruses proceed to evolve, and H5N1 could mutate and gain the power to contaminate people more easily.

“The reason health authorities are and should be on high alert is because this is a potentially serious pathogen,” said Meghan Davis, an epidemiologist and microbiologist at Johns Hopkins University.

That's why government authorities are placing great emphasis on testing and monitoring dairy employees. But they’re facing significant challenges in doing so.

H5N1 is deadly to domestic poultry and may wipe out entire poultry flocks inside a couple of days, in accordance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. saysThe poultry industry due to this fact responded vigorously to the threat, slaughtering entire flocks if it detected even one infected bird. In cows, nevertheless, H5N1 is milder, and the response on dairy farms has been less aggressive.

The CDC and USDA have advised dairy farms to watch for the virus in cattle and folks, but testing stays voluntary, apart from herds that move across state lines.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist and scientist on the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, stressed that the present strain of bird flu doesn’t pose a pandemic threat to humans. Therefore, he said, now’s the proper time to place the suitable testing and surveillance measures in place.

“If you can't get it right with something that is as forgiving as this virus in terms of its ineffectiveness at infecting people, that really doesn't bode well for the time when there is more at stake,” Adalja said.

So far, cases of the virus have been documented in livestock in Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. in accordance with USDALast month, federal officials announced Grants to farms to offset the fee of milk loss from sick cows. Four states – Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas – are Start voluntary pilot programs to check dairy farms’ milk tanks for the virus.

In Michigan, where the virus was detected in 25 herdsTim Boring, director of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said efforts are focused on helping farmers recoup their losses and getting them tested. Last month, the agency announced it will use a mix of federal and state funds to offer as much as $28,000 to as much as 20 affected farms.

The state also launched a study to seek out out whether antibodies are present in individuals who have had contact with sick cows, with the aim of determining whether there have been asymptomatic infections.

Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan's chief medical officer, said the state is working with community health centers and native health departments to achieve farmworkers.

“They know not only the farms in their counties, but also many of the farmworker organizations,” she said.

Dairy farm employees, who are sometimes immigrants, cannot afford to miss a single day of labor and are due to this fact often reluctant to request a test or report that they’re feeling sick, advocates say.

“This population is just severely underserved in terms of outreach and trust in state and federal agencies,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the United Farm Workers union. “This group of workers is some of the poorest workers in the United States.”

Immigrants make up 51% of the each day labor force on dairy farms, and farms that employ immigrants produce 79% of the country’s milk supply, in accordance with the National Association of Milk Producers.

Amy Liebman of the Migrant Clinicians Network, an education and outreach group of migrant health experts, believes the tests ought to be done on farms somewhat than in clinics.

“Dairy plants are in rural areas, very isolated geographically. You're not going to bring all the workers together in one place to do screenings or testing. You really have to try to go where the workers are,” she said.

But getting farm owners to agree hasn't been easy. The Texas Department of State Health Services told Stateline that it has offered on-site testing to farmers, but as of mid-June, it had only tested about 20 symptomatic dairy employees who volunteered to be tested. It also provided personal protective equipment to “interested dairies” and posted an ad online offering to produce the equipment.

Coordination between agriculture and health authorities on the state or local level is essential to tracking virus spread. An absence of coordination and monitoring can result in underreporting of cases.

“I think it's definitely more widespread than is currently being reported,” said Dr. Shira Doron, chief of infection control at Tufts Medicine. “The barriers between agencies are really hindering our efforts right now.”

The CDC has a payment to each farmworker who tests themselves and provides blood and nasal swab samples to the agency. But Doris Garcia-Ruiz, who directs farmworker outreach at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, said that won't make up for the times of lost income.

“If they take the time to go to the doctor, they don’t have sick leave and therefore don’t get paid,” she said.

The latest CDC figures show that a minimum of 53 People were tested through the outbreak of the cattle herd, with a majority of those in Michigan. Strater says that's not enough.

“This is miserable,” she said. “Our testing method is so passive. They rely on employees to report to medical clinics. These are employees who would not seek medical treatment themselves unless they were experiencing something life-threatening.”

Getting employees to make use of personal protective equipment can also be a challenge. The CDC recommends that employees wear respiratory masks, waterproof aprons and coveralls, non-ventilated safety glasses or face shields, and rubber boots with sealed seams that could be disinfected. In addition, employees are advisable to follow a selected sequence of steps at the tip of a shift to remove PPE to avoid contamination.

“Dairy work is very wet and very hands-on,” says Christine Sauvé, community engagement director on the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. “While some industries are very familiar with PPE, the full CDC recommendation is new and different. And so that really needs to be fully encouraged by the employer and then also by state authorities.”

Sauvé worries that Michigan's response is prioritizing farmers' losses over the health of farmworkers. While the chance to the general public is low, farmworkers mustn’t be forgotten, she and other experts say.

Bethany Alcauter of the National Center for Farmworker Health described the specter of bird flu as “a kind of ticking time bomb.”

“It may not have fully worked out yet. But if we don't handle it well, it could happen,” Alcauter said.

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