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Clues From Bird Flu鈥檚 Ground Zero on Dairy Farms in the Texas Panhandle

Clues From Bird Flu鈥檚 Ground Zero on Dairy Farms in the Texas Panhandle

Birds peck at food intended for dairy cattle. (Moment/Getty Images)

In early February, dairy farmers in the Texas Panhandle began to notice sick cattle. The buzz soon reached Darren Turley, executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen: 鈥淭hey said there is something moving from herd to herd.鈥

Nearly 60 days passed before veterinarians identified the culprit: a highly pathogenic strain of the bird flu virus, H5N1. Had it been detected sooner, the outbreak might have been swiftly contained. Now it has spread to at least eight other states, and it will be hard to eliminate.

At the moment, the bird flu hasn鈥檛 adapted to spread from person to person through the air like the seasonal flu. That鈥檚 what it would take to give liftoff to another pandemic. This lucky fact could change, however, as the virus mutates within each cow it infects. Those mutations are random, but more cows provide more chances of stumbling on ones that pose a grave risk to humans.

Why did it take so long to recognize the virus on high-tech farms in the world鈥檚 richest country? Because even though H5N1 has circulated for nearly three decades, its arrival in dairy cattle was most unexpected. 鈥淧eople tend to think that an outbreak starts at Monday at 9 a.m. with a sign saying, 鈥極utbreak has started,鈥欌 said Jeremy Farrar, chief scientist at the World Health Organization. 鈥淚t鈥檚 rarely like that.鈥

By investigating the origins of outbreaks, researchers garner clues about how they start and spread. That information can curb the toll of an epidemic and, ideally, stop the next one. On-the-ground observations and genomic analyses point to Texas as ground zero for this outbreak in cattle. To backtrack events in Texas, 素人色情片Health News spoke with more than a dozen people, including veterinarians, farmers, and state officials.

An early indication that something had gone awry on farms in northwestern Texas came from devices hitched to collars on dairy cows. Turley describes them as 鈥渁n advanced fitness tracker.鈥 They collect a stream of data, such as a cow鈥檚 temperature, its milk quality, and the progress of its digestion 鈥 or, rather, rumination 鈥 within its four-chambered stomach.

What farmers saw when they downloaded the data in February stopped them in their tracks. One moment a cow seemed perfectly fine, and then four hours later, rumination had halted. 鈥淪hortly after the stomach stops, you鈥檇 see a huge falloff in milk,鈥 Turley said. 鈥淭hat is not normal.鈥

Tests for contagious diseases known to whip through herds came up negative. Some farmers wondered if the illness was related to ash from wildfires devastating land to the east.

In hindsight, Turley wished he had made more of the migrating geese that congregate in the panhandle each winter and spring. Geese and other waterfowl have carried H5N1 around the globe. They withstand enormous loads of the virus without getting sick, passing it on to local species, like blackbirds, cowbirds, and grackles, that mix with migrating flocks.

But with so many other issues facing dairy farmers, geese didn鈥檛 register. 鈥淥ne thing you learn in agriculture is that Mother Nature is unpredictable and can be devastating,鈥 Turley said. 鈥淛ust when you think you have figured it out, Mother Nature tells you you do not.鈥

Cat Clues

One dairy tried to wall itself off, careful not to share equipment with or employ the same workers as other farms, Turley recalled. Its cattle still became ill. Turley noted that the farm was downwind of another with an outbreak, 鈥渟o you almost think it has to have an airborne factor.鈥

On March 7, Turley called the Texas Animal Health Commission. They convened a with experts in animal health, human health, and agriculture to ponder what they called the 鈥渕ystery syndrome.鈥 State veterinarians probed cow tissue for parasites, examined the animals鈥 blood, and tested for viruses and bacteria. But nothing explained the sickness.

They didn鈥檛 probe for H5N1. While it has jumped into mammals dozens of times, it rarely has spread between species. Most cases have been in carnivores, which likely ate infected birds. Cows are mainly vegetarian.

鈥淚f someone told me about a milk drop in cows, I wouldn鈥檛 think to test for H5N1 because, no, cattle don鈥檛 get that,鈥 said Thomas Peacock, a virologist at the Pirbright Institute of England who studies avian influenza.

Postmortem tests of grackles, blackbirds, and other on dairy farms detected H5N1, but that didn鈥檛 turn the tide. 鈥淲e didn鈥檛 think much of it since we have seen H5N1-positive birds everywhere in the country,鈥 said Amy Swinford, director of the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory.

In the meantime, rumors swirled about a rash of illness among workers at dairy farms in the panhandle. It was flu season, however, and hospitals weren鈥檛 reporting anything out of the ordinary.

Bethany Boggess Alcauter, director of research at the National Center for Farmworker Health, has worked in the panhandle and suspected farmworkers were unlikely to see a doctor even if they needed one. Clinics are far from where they live, she said, and many don鈥檛 speak English or Spanish 鈥 for instance, they may speak Indigenous languages such as Mixtec, which is common in parts of Mexico. The cost of medical care is another deterrent, along with losing pay by missing work 鈥 or losing their jobs 鈥 if they don鈥檛 show up. 鈥淓ven when medical care is there,鈥 she said, 鈥渋t鈥檚 a challenge.鈥

What finally tipped off veterinarians? A few farm cats died suddenly and tested positive for H5N1. Swinford鈥檚 group 鈥 collaborating with veterinary labs at Iowa State and Cornell universities 鈥 searched for the virus in samples drawn from sick cows.

鈥淥n a Friday night at 9 p.m., March 22, I got a call from Iowa State,鈥 Swinford said. Researchers had discovered antibodies against H5N1 in a slice of a mammary gland. By Monday, her team and Cornell researchers identified genetic fragments of the virus. They alerted authorities. With that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that H5N1 had hit dairy cattle.

Two data-based images are side-by-side. The image on the left shows the genetic sequencing of the current H5N1 bird flu. The image on the left is a map that shows the spread of the disease out of Texas, to other states: Idaho, New Mexico, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio, and North Carolina.
from H5N1 viruses suggest the current bird flu epidemic started with a spillover from birds into cows in Texas, and then spread to other states within cattle. Routes and timing remain uncertain because of limited data. (素人色情片Health News May 15 screenshot of nextstrain.org)

Recalling rumors of sick farmworkers, Texas health officials asked farmers, veterinarians, and local health departments to encourage testing. About 20 people with coughs, aches, irritated eyes, or other flu-like symptoms stepped forward to be swabbed. Those samples were shipped to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All but one were negative for H5N1. On April 1, the CDC announced this year鈥檚 first case: a farmworker with an inflamed eye that cleared up within days.

Thirteen dairy farms in the panhandle had been affected, said Brian Bohl, director of field operations at the Texas Animal Health Commission. Farmers report that outbreaks among the herds last 30 to 45 days and most cows return to milking at their usual pace.

The observation hints that herds gain immunity, if temporarily. Indeed, early evidence shows that H5N1 triggers a protective antibody response in cattle, said Marie Culhane, a professor of veterinary population medicine at the University of Minnesota. Nonetheless, she and others remain uneasy because no one knows how the virus spreads, or what risk it poses to people working with cattle.

Although most cows recover, farmers said the outbreaks have disrupted their careful timing around when cattle milk, breed, and birth calves.

Farmers want answers that would come with further research, but the spirit of collaboration that existed in the first months of the Texas outbreak has fractured. have triggered a backlash from farmers who find them unduly punishing, given that pasteurized milk and cooked beef from dairy cattle appear to pose no risk to consumers.

The rules, such as prohibiting infected cattle from interstate travel for 30 days, pose a problem for farmers who move pregnant cattle to farms that specialize in calving, to graze in states with gentler winters, and to return home for milking. 鈥淲hen the federal order came out, some producers said, ‘I鈥檓 going to quit testing,’鈥 Bohl said.

In May, the USDA , such as up to $10,000 to test and treat infected cattle. 鈥淭he financial incentives will help,鈥 Turley said. But how much remains to be seen.

Federal authorities have pressed states to extract more intel from farms and farmworkers. Several veterinarians warn such pressure could fracture their relationships with farmers, stifling lines of communication.

Having fought epidemics around the world, Farrar cited examples of when strong-arm surveillance pushed outbreaks underground. During an early 2000s bird flu outbreak in Vietnam, regulations by moving poultry at night, bribing inspection workers, and selling their goods through back channels. 鈥淟earning what drivers and fears exist among people is crucial,鈥 Farrar said. 鈥淏ut we always seem to realize that at a later date.鈥

A powerful driver in the U.S.: Milk is a . Public health is also bound to bump up against politics in Texas, a state so aggrieved by pandemic restrictions that lawmakers passed a bill last year barring health officials from recommending covid-19 vaccines.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said that when he heard that federal agents with the CDC and USDA were considering visits to farms 鈥 including those where farmers reported the cattle had recovered 鈥 he advised against it. 鈥淪end federal agents to dairy that鈥檚 not sick?鈥 he said. 鈥淭hat doesn鈥檛 pass the smell test.鈥

A photograph of a large flock of geese, which are white with black-tipped wings and orange beaks. Most are sitting in a body of water, while others have taken flight.
Several species of geese spend time in northern Texas. Geese and waterfowl have transported the bird flu virus around the globe on their transcontinental migrations.(Moment/Getty Images)

From Texas to the Nation

Peacock said of H5N1 viruses point to Texas as ground zero for the cattle epidemic, emerging late last year.

鈥淎ll of these little jigsaw puzzle pieces corroborate undetected circulation in Texas for some time,鈥 said Peacock, an author on about the outbreak.

Evidence suggests that either a single cow was infected by viruses shed from birds 鈥 perhaps those geese, grackles, or blackbirds, he said. Or the virus spilled over from birds into cattle several times, with only a fraction of those moving from cow to cow.

Sometime in March, viruses appear to have hitched a ride to other states as cows were moved between farms. The limited genomic data available in Texas directly to others in New Mexico, Kansas, Ohio, North Carolina, and South Dakota. However, the routes are imprecise because the USDA hasn鈥檛 attached dates and locations to data it releases.

Researchers don鈥檛 want to be caught off guard again by the shape-shifting H5N1 virus, and that will require keeping tabs on humans. Most, if not all, of about 900 people diagnosed with H5N1 infections worldwide since 2003 acquired it from animals, rather than from humans, Farrar said. About half of those people died.

Occasional tests of sick farmworkers aren鈥檛 sufficient, he said. Ideally, a system is set up to encourage farmworkers, their communities, and health care workers to be tested whenever the virus hits farms nearby.

鈥淗ealth care worker infections are always a sign of human-to-human transmission,鈥 Farrar said. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 the approach you want to take 鈥 I am not saying it鈥檚 easy.鈥