While bird flu has sickened cows across the country in recent weeks, the Dairy State has not yet seen any direct effects, according to researchers and livestock experts.

There are still unknowns as information is updated, but people can feel comfortable drinking pasteurized milk — which is what’s sold in stores, said Keith Poulsen, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

Farmers, meanwhile, should be vigilant and help researchers identify sick animals to learn more about the virus, H5N1.

The Cap Times spoke with Poulsen and other experts to learn what Wisconsin residents should know about the recent spread of bird flu among some states’ dairy farms.

Here are answers to five key questions:

Has Wisconsin seen any cases?

No, there had not been any cases in cows or humans in Wisconsin as of Friday afternoon, according to Poulsen.

“This is really a problem of moving lactating (milking) animals” from state to state, Poulsen said. “Wisconsin doesn’t really import lactating cows or lactating heifers, or cows really, except for exhibition.”

How is the virus spread?

There probably are more unreported incidents, Poulsen said, but so far, there’s been one confirmed human case with a Texas dairy farm worker who had conjunctivitis. Researchers assume the virus is spreading through direct contact on dairies.

“People do act as a mechanical vector,” Poulsen said. “We’ve seen that with the dairies in Michigan where the owners of the dairy owned … a poultry production facility. And they had employees that … went to both, and they had poor biosecurity, and they took influenza from the cows” and “infected the poultry farm.”

In those situations, Poulsen added, “you would have to be exposed to a large amount of virus.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the public health risk was low, as of Friday.

“The longer this outbreak goes, the higher that risk becomes. I think it would be exceedingly low, but not zero,” Poulsen said. “But if we don’t do something to mitigate risk of this virus in the environment, it could change and it could have implications for public health.”

In terms of how the virus spreads among cows, “at first we thought it was just a point source contamination,” Poulsen said. But as “we saw how fast it was moving, it was apparent very quickly that lateral transmission, or cow to cow, was likely a source.”

“We think, most likely, it’s probably in the (milking) parlor because that’s the common point source on the farm,” Poulsen said. “But I think we’ll have more information on that when we get some more data.”

One human case of the avian flu had been confirmed as of April 26, a Texas dairy farm worker who suffered from conjunctivitis, more commonly known as pink eye.

Is it safe to buy and drink milk?

Yes, pasteurized dairy products are safe, Poulsen said.

On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration said that virus fragments showed up in about one in five retail milk samples in a nationally representative study, particularly in milk coming from areas with infected herds.

People might wonder what that means, and if it depends on where you live, Poulsen said. But “realistically, it doesn’t matter,” he said, because given the amount of virus that’s shed and how dairy products are made, “it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’re seeing fragments of RNA.”

Poulsen emphasized that “pasteurization is 100% effective, and there’s been no data to suggest otherwise.”

“Now, for the public that consumes raw dairy and raw fresh milk, that’s never a good idea for public health,” he said.

That said, most of the raw milk that’s consumed even in Wisconsin with incidental sale “is from very small, very isolated dairies,” Poulsen said, and the chances of them having H5N1 influenza “are exceedingly low, but not zero.”

In terms of other foods, you should cook your eggs and your meat, he said, “just like you always have for other foodborne pathogens.”

What should Wisconsin farmers know?

Darlene Konkle is the Wisconsin state veterinarian and advises farmers to be on the lookout for symptoms in their herds. A sudden drop in milk production or feed intake could mean a cow is ill. More symptoms of H5N1 are listed on UW-Extension’s site.

“They should be looking out for any unusual, unexplained sign and symptoms in their cattle,” Konkle said.

If farmers do notice symptoms in their animals they should call their veterinarian. There is not any antiviral treatment available for cows with H5N1 but instead they can receive what’s called “supportive care.”

If cattle, especially milking cows, are exhibiting symptoms they should be removed from the herd, milked and cared for separately. Konkle also encourages all farmers to continue practicing biosecurity measures.

“Farmers in general — and not just dairy farmers but really any livestock owners — should be following good biosecurity and that’s really going to vary from farm to farm based on what kinds of animals they have, how big they are, whether they have outside employees coming on,” she said.

Biosecurity measures on farms aim to prevent the spread of potentially harmful organisms from entering or leaving the environment. Farm biosecurity includes washing hands before and after working with livestock, wearing foot coverings and coveralls, keeping recently arrived cattle separate from the herd, regularly cleaning equipment used to feed animals, and keeping the herd up on vaccinations.

Wisconsin’s state agriculture department provides additional information for farmers about livestock biosecurity on its website.

For lactating dairy cows that will be moving across state lines, an individual milk sample needs to be taken from each cow. Samples need to be collected by or overseen by an accredited veterinarian. The samples then need to be tested at a National Animal Health Laboratory in Madison.

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Federal health authorities have directed farmers to send in samples from lactating cows to test them for bird flu before they move the animals across state lines. Few dairy cows in Wisconsin are shipped to other states.

Poulsen said his team has heard from concerned Wisconsin farmers, particularly those who have their heifers and calves grown in Texas and then bring them back.

Information is changing daily, “so everyone’s worried,” not just about animal health, Poulsen said, but because Wisconsin’s dairy industry is so important to the state’s economy.

“If we were to have sick animals, it’d be a completely different story,” he said. “I think that risk is low, but not zero, at this point, unless something were to drastically change.”

Why are cows moved?

A federal order released Wednesday requires that lactating animals — mature dairy cows — moved across state lines must test negative for the H5N1 virus before moving.

“Check on those requirements for your state of destination and ensure you’re meeting those before moving animals,” Konkle said.

Dairy cows may be transported for shows or events, or if they are at the end of their life. Some large dairies in Wisconsin move their heifers out of state to be raised and often bull calves are sold off dairy farms to be raised as steers elsewhere or used for veal. However, those animals would not be subject to the federal testing requirements.

“If these are non lactating cattle — so cattle not currently milking — they would not need to be tested for this virus prior to moving interstate,” Konkle said. “At least not right now. Things could change as we learn more about this virus.”

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