Gilliband warns of avian flu spread to dairy cows, urges White House to take proactive measures

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May 21—Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand is raising the alarm on an avian flu outbreak being tracked in American dairy cows, after the Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first transmission of the virus from a dairy cow to a human in April.

The senator stressed that the current risk to the public is low, and avian flu has not been detected in cattle in New York, but said she was concerned that there are serious gaps in testing and tracking of the virus.

"Already, scientists have observed unusually high levels of influenza in wastewater from several states, they have also found high viral loads in raw milk samples as well as inactive remnants of the disease in one in five pasteurized milk products," she said.

The Senator urged people to avoid raw milk products for a time — raw milk is just as it sounds, unpasteurized and unhomogenized. Some people have taken to drinking it in place of the more typical processed milk found in grocery stores, claiming it is easier on the stomach or beneficial for those with dairy allergies. Health experts including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have warned that raw milk is a risk, as it can carry dangerous bacteria introduced by the cow, or through the collection and bottling process. The CDC reports, between 1993 and 2012, there were 127 outbreaks of illness linked to raw milk or raw milk products, resulting in over 1,900 illnesses and 144 hospitalizations. The CDC warns that that's likely an undercount of the actual number of health episodes linked to raw milk, because illnesses like food poisoning often go unreported.

In New York, raw milk can be sold with a permit obtained from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which requires monthly water tests, milk tests, cow disease tests and ongoing enrollment in s a state program that performs independent tests on milk products for enrolled farms.

The U.S. Labor Department has urged farms that breed cows or other at-risk flocks like chickens or ducks to conduct hazard analyses to protect workers from exposure to the illness, and any farms that have found avian flu in their herds should immediately provide personal protective equipment like gloves, shoe-covers, safety goggles, N-95 masks and areas to sanitize and wash up.

Gillibrand said that pasteurized milk, which has been heated to a level below boiling for a period of time to eliminate pathogens, should be safe from the virus even if it came from an infected cow.

"As long as we take the necessary safety precautions and are vigilant in our approach, our farmers, workers and communities should be safe," she said.

But she warned that the U.S. is in no position to handle another public health crisis, as the healthcare industry continues to slowly limp towards recovery from the COVId-19 pandemic. Hospital emergency rooms are still facing historic waiting times, emergency medical services are facing low staff and volunteer levels while call volumes continue to climb, and public trust in public health officials is at a low level.

She warned that unchecked spread of avian flu, especially among livestock, would also pose severe economic challenges for farmers and the average American — already some farmers in other states have had to cull flocks of birds infected with the disease, driving up poultry and egg prices. A similar infection rate in dairy or beef cattle would drive up costs in many other areas of the grocery store, from the meat counter to the milk department.

Gillibrand said she is urging her colleagues in Washington to support her "One Health Security Act," which would create a federal council of experts to lead national biological threat response — it takes into account the health of food crops, food herds, environmental health and public human health and asks the council to take a holistic approach to public health and disease response.

Gillibrand also called on the White House and Biden Administration to release publicly the internal guidance it has provided to agencies and state governments about avian flu, so the public can review and take it into consideration.

"I home steps are being taken to track, monitor and mitigate spread," she said. "While I'm confident the danger to humans from avian flu remains low, New York farmers and restaurants deserve to know what's being done to keep them safe."

Gillibrand said the Senate version of the Farm Bill, a package of agricultural, food security and public aid legislation currently being crafted in Congress, includes $35 million in mandatory spending for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's animal disease prevention and management programs, which she said would go a long way to help the agency track avian flu outbreaks in herds across the U.S.

The Senate bill also includes, in its current form, a reauthorization for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network and the National Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Program, as well as the National Animal Vaccine and Veterinarian Countermeasures Bank, all programs aimed at tracking, studying, sharing information on and preventing disease spread among animals in the U.S.