Wisconsin summit needed ASAP on bird flu

The reticence of Gov. Evers and his team, legislators, journalists and University of Wisconsin researchers to transparently engage the rapidly expanding bird flu epidemic is perplexing to say the least. This virus has rapidly infected an astonishingly wide array of birds and animals, most recently, dairy cows.

With Wisconsin as one of the top two dairy states in the country, it’s not asking too much for state leaders to step up smartly in response to news that the bird flu virus has jumped from birds to 33 cow herds in eight states, even though it’s not yet been detected in Wisconsin herds.

Their attention should be heightened by the U.S. Department of Agriculture order last week that any lactating dairy cows transported across state lines must test negative for the flu. Note that Wisconsin farmers routinely ship calves to Kansas and Texas during the winter for growth.

Early experience and reporting on the H5N1 bird flu virus showed some alarming and fast-developing findings that make it look something like the early days of the Covid pandemic:

  • An estimated 85 million birds, wild and domestic, have been killed by the avian virus in 48 states. Some poultry farms have destroyed many thousands of birds.
  • Genetic traces of the virus have been registered in milk, but most experts believe pasteurization kills the virus. Small amounts of virus found in pasteurized milk have not been alive. Importantly, though, some Wisconsin cheeses are made from unpasteurized milk. Cheese testing will undoubtedly follow.
  • H5N1 had killed at least 24,000 South American sea lions along the continent’s coasts in less than a year. Recently, the virus had killed and estimated 17,400 seal pups, more than 95% of the colony’s young animals on the Argentina coast.
  • One major egg producer detected avian flu in a Texas facility and culled more than one million birds. Some egg products are pasteurized, but most eggs sold in cartons are not. Proper cooking, beyond the runny stage, eliminates the avian flu virus.
  • H5N1 virus has spread worldwide through bird populations and has caused 442 confirmed human cases and 262 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Only two mild human cases have been reported in the U.S. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at UW-Madison, (pictured below at the UW’s Influenza Research Institute), says, “H5N1 virus has never acquired the ability to transmit among humans, which is why we haven’t had a pandemic.”

Clearly, in the face of these reports, public health leaders in Wisconsin need to sharply ramp up their attention to this threat to birds and animals. State public health leaders need to immediately increase their capabilities and attention, including:

  • To offset producer reluctance to report outbreaks, stiffer reporting requirements must be enforced.
  • Build more testing facilities beyond the few Wisconsin existing sites.
  • Rapidly develop vaccines, either existing or new, that can disarm the virus.
  • Develop and deploy therapeutic drugs that could be injected into the animals with the disease and humans if that becomes necessary.
  • Launch an intensive information campaign for dissemination to dairy and poultry producers. Regulate them more, if necessary.
  • Issue clear instructions to U.S. consumers on use of milk, cheese and eggs.
  • Raise the leadership profile of Professor Kawaoka and his UW Institute for Influenza Viral Research.

Wisconsin has a lot at stake. We must head off and lessen the risks to our leading dairy sector and possibly to human beings.

Gov. Evers needs to call an emergency summit of health experts and get moving on a strategy with multiple initiatives.

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