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Criticism Mounts as US Bird Flu Response Under Scrutiny

Criticism Mounts as US Bird Flu Response Under Scrutiny

United States: A burgeoning cadre of eminent public health specialists is sounding alarms over what they describe as tepid efforts to surveil and curtail the propagation of avian influenza within US dairy operations.

If this scenario serves as a barometer for America’s enhanced preparedness against potential pandemic threats post-COVID-19, our performance is decidedly subpar.

Nearly three months have elapsed since the H5N1 avian influenza virus was discovered to have crossed over to bovine populations, yet experts contend we are far from obtaining a reliable assessment of its proliferation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that avian flu has been identified in 92 dairy cattle herds across 12 states. Among US dairy farm workers, three confirmed cases of mild infection have surfaced, as reported by AXIOS.

Despite reassurances from officials that the risk to the general populace remains minimal, a significant concern lingers regarding the virus potentially mutating to facilitate human-to-human transmission.

In detail: Authorities have been conducting tests on bovines and agricultural workers, alongside wastewater surveillance, to ascertain the virus’s geographical spread.

However, experts largely concur that the US is overlooking numerous cases in both cattle and humans. Farmers exhibit reluctance to engage in surveillance activities, and as of June 13, only 45 dairy farm workers have been tested.

Physicians warn that the limited availability of avian flu tests might hinder the detection of potential cases presenting at their practices.

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, informed Axios that there is insufficient data to discern trends in bovine cases, as mentioned by AXIOS.

Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Infectious Disease Research Center, emphasized the necessity of understanding the duration it takes for infected herds to eliminate the virus to gauge the risk period for workers.

The CDC has recently traced the avian-to-bovine spillover to a singular incident in late 2023. However, Osterholm suggested that further farm data could reveal additional spillover events.

What they’re articulating: “The H5N1 is very likely evolving, but we remain uninformed—USDA and CDC are navigating blindly,” Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote on X.

“We failed — across two administrations — to devise and implement a robust surveillance strategy with COVID, and we are replicating the same blunders,” Jerome Adams, former Surgeon General under President Trump, expressed to Politico, according to AXIOS.

“It’s been startling to witness the ineptitude in merely executing surveillance, communicating effectively, tracking infections, and comprehending our current status,” stated Seth Berkley, former CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, according to Stat.

Noteworthy distinctions exist between the initial responses to COVID and H5N1, highlighted by CDC principal deputy director Nirav Shah.

Scientists possess two decades of research on this strain of bird flu, providing a substantial understanding of its general behavior. Furthermore, efficacious medications and a ready-to-produce vaccine exist, he noted.

“That positions us differently,” Shah conveyed to Axios, emphasizing the CDC’s intent “to utilize every possible measure” to amplify human testing.

In a statement, the USDA remarked, “The comprehensive support measures recently announced by USDA, which integrate feedback from state partners and industry stakeholders, underscore the Department’s dedication to a thorough response to H5N1 in poultry, cattle, and other animals, as necessary.”

States have encountered challenges in garnering cooperation from farmers, and new federal incentives for bird flu testing and prevention have not significantly increased participation.

It took years to establish robust bird flu surveillance within the poultry sector, and achieving similar results among dairy farmers would likely necessitate a cultural shift, experts indicated, according to AXIOS.

Shah pointed out that numerous dairy farm workers are undocumented immigrants or migrants who harbor distrust towards the government or are reluctant to miss work if they test positive.

The response thus far has not inspired much confidence that public health’s capability to counter a potential pandemic threat has improved since the COVID debacle left the US flat-footed.

“The fact that we’re encountering such significant issues with this instance doesn’t bode well for future scenarios,” stated Johns Hopkins’ Adalja. “And there will be future scenarios; there’s always a next one.”

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