The Media and I: Avian Flu

By Henry I. Miller, MS, MD — May 23, 2024
During my recent conversation with John Batchelor, we discussed the ongoing threat of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu, which has been a persistent concern, particularly in Asia, since the early 2000s. Newer variants of the virus have recently posed significant challenges to poultry farmers, especially in Northern California, where millions of birds have been culled to control outbreaks. Of particular concern has been the spread of avian flu to many mammalian species, most recently to dozens of herds of dairy cows in at least 10 states.

One of the more concerning recent developments (since around the beginning of this year) is the confirmed transmission of avian flu to dairy cows. Although the virus does not kill the cows, the animals do become ill, and the quality of their milk is affected -- by discoloration and an increase in its viscosity. The primary risk lies in the potential for the virus to experience "antigenic shift" – the re-assortment of viral RNAs leading to the appearance of a new viral variant capable of human-to-human transmission. That can occur when there is simultaneous infection of more than one flu virus in a single animal – such as in pigs, which can act as a "mixing vessel." 

During the current outbreak, there has been one reported human avian flu infection in Texas, probably due to contact with an infected cow. The CDC recommends avoiding raw milk products as a precaution, as pasteurization can mitigate the risk. There is a notable lack of cooperation from some dairy farmers and state officials, likely due to fears of quarantine or culling. However, federal offers to financially offset the costs of preventative measures should improve compliance.

Two important actions that to this point have been lacking are (1) wastewater surveillance for the presence of the avian flu virus that is infecting cows and (2) the appointment of a senior national public health official to oversee the national response to the outbreak.

You can find the entire conversation here 

You can find a more comprehensive look my article on the topics here and here   


Henry I. Miller, MS, MD

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. His research focuses on public policy toward science, technology, and medicine, encompassing a number of areas, including pharmaceutical development, genetic engineering, models for regulatory reform, precision medicine, and the emergence of new viral diseases. Dr. Miller served for fifteen years at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a number of posts, including as the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology.

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