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Colorado issues guidance for livestock fairs, shows as bird flu outbreaks among dairy cattle continue to grow

The guidance is subject to change as "this outbreak is ongoing and dynamic," state department of agriculture officials say
Posted: 6:00 PM, Jun 17, 2024
Updated: 2024-06-25 12:51:25-04
Bird Flu

DENVER — Colorado has released guidance for livestock owners and event organizers ahead of a busy county fair show season this summer as the number of dairy cattle affected by an unprecedented outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza continues to grow statewide.

The guidance issued Monday by the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) is in line with that of the feds, which encourages – but does not mandate – that livestock owners and event organizers increase practices that help prevent the introduction or spread of diseases, in this case, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1, more commonly known as bird flu, among their herds.

The guidance – which is only specific for cattle moving within state lines – calls for livestock owners and event organizers to monitor their herds for clinical signs of disease and to work with their veterinarian to test lactating dairy cattle for Influenza A a week prior to the show/event.

Event organizers and livestock owners should continue to monitor herds for any clinical signs of illness during the show/event. Any cattle that becomes ill must be reported to the event veterinarian, and the affected animal should then be isolated from the rest, the guidance states.

Post-show/event, livestock owners should isolate cattle for 30 days when returning home and continue to monitor their herds for signs of illness, CDA officials said in a news release.

The guidance, which CDA officials said is subject to change due to the "ongoing and dynamic" nature of the outbreak, comes more than a month after the issue was first brought up during a virtual town hall in which the state veterinarian provided an overview of bird flu in Colorado dairy cows.

At the time, Colorado had reported only one outbreak among dairy cows as it awaited confirmatory results of a second outbreak from the USDA. As of Friday, that number had grown to 10, with the majority of those outbreaks confirmed by the USDA within a span of 2 days last week.

Nationwide, 102 outbreaks of bird flu among dairy herds have been reported across 12 states as of Monday.

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It's not clear how much a federal order put in place on April 24 and adopted by the state not long after will be able to mitigate transmission among dairy herds, as the virus appears to be spreading among cows who aren't showing any symptoms and testing remains voluntary and encouraged only for visibly sick animals, according to STAT News.

Signs of HPAI in dairy cows include decreased feed intake, a significant drop in milk production and milk that is thicker in consistency as well as discolored. Other signs producers should watch out for in their herds are slight fevers and tacky stools, state veterinarian Dr. Maggie Baldwin has previously said.

During the May 8 virtual town hall, Baldwin also said that even though HPAI leads to severe disease and death in bird populations, H5N1 was not having the same effect in dairy cattle.

A recent Reuters report, however, stated that some cows infected with bird flu have died in at least five states, including Colorado. Denver7 has not been able to independently confirm that information.

How can I protect myself from catching bird flu?

Federal and state officials maintain that the risk of catching bird flu for the general public is low, though risk depends on exposure, according to Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

“People who are exposed to sick birds and cattle are more likely to get infected,” she said during the May 8 town hall.

So far, three farm workers in the U.S. have contracted bird flu after coming into contact with sick cattle, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). None developed severe symptoms.

No human-to-human transmission of bird flu has been detected thus far, CDC officials added.

The nation's top public health agency recommends that farm workers who come into contact with cattle suspected or confirmed to be infected with H5N1 wear disposable fluid-resistant coveralls, vented safety goggles or a face shield, as well as an N95 respirator.

Right now people can't easily infect each other with bird flu; could that change?

As of June 21, approximately 318 dairy workers were being monitored for possible exposure to bird flu in Colorado in connection with the state's 6 most recent outbreaks confirmed by the USDA last week. Monitoring for 70 of the 113 dairy workers from the state's first four outbreaks has been completed and none developed symptoms, a CDPHE spokesperson said in an email, adding, "The number of people we are monitoring changes frequently as some farms complete monitoring and new ones are added."

"Additionally, CDPHE and Weld County Public Health coordinated testing for two people, as well as made sure flu antivirals were available. All results have been negative."

Herlihy previously said the CDPHE was working with producers on educating workers frequently exposed to sick poultry or cattle about the measures they can take to protect themselves. She said the agency has PPE available for any affected dairies or for any dairy that would like to provide it to their workers.

In all, 15 Colorado dairies have received PPE from CDPHE since the outbreak was first reported in Colorado on April 25, the CDPHE spokesperson said. The state's health department was working with a 16th dairy to fulfill a PPE order, the spokesperson added.

The general public should avoid contact with sick birds or other animals to reduce their chances of becoming infected with bird flu, Herlihy said. If you must handle sick or dead birds or animals, be sure to wear gloves, a high-quality mask such as a KN95 or N95 respirator, and eye protection. After handling the animal, double bag it and throw it away in your municipal trash can before thoroughly washing your hands.

Can I catch bird flu from drinking milk or eating meat?

Though early research lead by Federal Drug Administration (FDA) detected remnants of bird flu in retail milk, follow-up studies in which scientists tried to grow live virus from those grocery store samples did not yield any positive results.

Further testing done by the FDA in mid-to-late April on nearly 300 dairy samples from 17 states also failed to detect any live, infectious virus, which adds weight to previous statements made by the agency that pasteurization is inactivating H5N1 in milk.

Other milk-related products that undergo pasteurization, such as cheeses, sour creams, yogurts, butters, etc., are also safe to eat, health officials said.

FDA officials have said the likelihood that eggs will contain H5N1 is low “due to the safeguards in place, which include testing of flocks and federal inspection programs,” that call for the disposal of eggs and meat from infected poultry. Proper egg storage and preparation “further reduce the risk,” they said.

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People should avoid raw milk and dairy products made from raw milk at the moment, scientists told STAT News in late April, as raw milk does not go through the process of pasteurization, which inactivates harmful viruses and bacteria. In Texas, a large number of cats who were fed raw milk suffered brain damage and later died, though scientists said they could not completely rule out if eating dead birds were the initial pathway of infection with the virus.

Earlier this month, the FDA sent a letter calling on states to curb the sale of raw milk and other raw milk products that may contain high levels of the virus, despite stating that the agency "does not know at this time if the HPAI H5N1 virus can be transmitted to humans through consumption of raw milk and products made from raw milk from infected cows."

Raw milk can't be sold in Colorado and a bill aimed at legalizing it for sale across the state died in the legislature this year, though Coloradans could still get it if they enter what's called a herd-share agreement.

Though Colorado has not tested swine and beef cattle for bird flu, ground beef appears to be safe for consumption after USDA officials found no live virus in retail meat from states with bird flu outbreaks following at least three different studies, including one in which the meat was cooked to varying levels of preparedness.

The state veterinarian previously said the FDA was looking at expanding testing to other cattle species, though a timeline of when that would happen was not immediately known.

The first county fair in the state this year — the Logan County Fair and Rodeo — begins July 25 in Sterling.

Editor's note on June 24, 2024 at 10:20 a.m.: This story has been edited with new information provided by the CDPHE on the number of dairy farm workers who are being monitored after possible exposure to H5N1.

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