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Shared farmworkers may be causing the spread of bird flu among cattle and poultry in Michigan

Dairy cattle stand together along the edges of their enclosures.
Megan Sprague
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Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development
Dairy cattle stand together along the edges of their enclosures.

Humans may be the reason why bird flu is spreading among Michigan cattle and poultry, according to state agriculture regulators.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) provided state lawmakers with an update Wednesday on the latest bird flu outbreak.

25 dairy herds and nearly seven million birds in Michigan have been exposed to the virus, according to MDARD, with two Michigan dairy farmworkers testing positive for bird flu.

Most cases in Michigan are clustered within farms located in the western and central regions of the state.

Bird flu detected in cattle herd and poultry flock in Michigan by counties.
Screenshot
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MDARD Presentation
Bird flu detected in cattle herd and poultry flock in Michigan by counties.

“The fact that Michigan has detected cases in both dairy cows and farmworkers isn’t perhaps an indication that this is only a Michigan virus,” MDARD Director Tim Boring said during a joint state Senate and House committee meeting. “But we're the only state to date to this extent that's been testing and finding those cases.”

To date, there have been three human cases associated with the multistate outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 virus in dairy cows across the United States.

At least 95 dairy cow herds in 12 states have confirmed cases of the virus, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Bird flu transmission pathway identified by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development
Screenshot
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MDARD Presentation
Bird flu transmission pathway identified by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

State agriculture officials note the virus likely spread from poultry to dairy farms through shared farmworkers and vehicles. When reviewing potential transmission pathways, MDARD found individuals who worked at affected dairy farms and poultry facilities also worked at other impacted sites.

The state also found a connection between workers who shared housing.

“A number of the farms that we've seen here in Michigan being affected by this disease are closed herds, meaning that we're not moving cattle between and within those herds,” said Boring. “It's not cow-to-cow transmission. It’s something else.”

Infections may have also occurred during cattle movement between herds, Boring noted, and among farm visitors and nearby wildlife.

MDARD seeks grant funding for damages

At the beginning of May, Boring signed an emergency order to require dairy and poultry farms to take biosecurity measures to prevent further spread of the virus. The mandate came a few days after the USDA implemented compulsory reporting and testing of interstate cattle movement.

Boring told lawmakers that his department is focusing on providing personal protective equipment to farmworkers to contain the outbreak.

“Biosecurity continues to be a focus on not only the mitigation of the virus from farm to farm, but increasingly our understanding of the risks to human health on this,” he said.

While the state has established protocols to tackle bird flu outbreaks in poultry, there are currently no corresponding measures in place to address the virus in cattle. Despite its lethality in poultry, most cattle infected with the virus have shown to recover following a period of appetite loss, low-grade fever and a drop in milk production.

MDARD has been working to adapt new standards for dealing with cattle infected with bird flu.

“We have some really robust practices on dairy farms today of the care, the treatment, the handling of sick animals, protections within the food supply,” Boring said. “There's established procedures of how you isolate cattle, isolate cows, make sure that milk doesn't go into the food supply.”

The spread of bird flu has the potential to affect Michigan’s economy in significant ways. Dairy and poultry are two of the largest sectors of the state’s agricultural industry with $15.7 billion and $8.5 billion in economic impact, according to MDARD.

Michigan dairy farms affected by bird flu could soon be eligible to receive thousands of dollars to address their losses. The state is working with the USDA to secure grant dollars for 20 dairy farms.

“Providing $28,000 to affected farms that are cooperating to animal and public health research ongoing for farms,” said Boring. “We know that the burden of working through questionnaires and having researchers on farms is significant.”

Copyright 2024 WKAR Public Media

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community. Michelle is also the voice of WKAR's weekend news programs.
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