Maryland puts restrictions on dairy cow farms to prevent the arrival of avian flu in the state

As avian flu cases among dairy cows are reported in several states, Maryland is taking action to prevent it from spreading into the state. The Maryland Department of Agriculture has issued an order restricting the movement of dairy cows from affected states.

“The concern about movement of cattle is that a lot of the outbreaks in multiple states have been linked to one particular farm in Texas, which implies that the movement of cattle is somehow spreading this virus to other states as well,” Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a virologist who studies viruses such as influenza at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said.

He said how the Type A H5N1 virus moved from birds to cattle remains a mystery, but the milk from one infected cow containing the virus has scientists looking into two theories.

“One is that the virus is spreading from cow to cow. Another is that perhaps the dairy equipment that are used to milk the cows were contaminated with the virus,” he said.

While cases in humans have reportedly only involved a mild case of conjunctivitis, Pekosz said when the H5N1 infects humans, it is oftentimes associated with a very severe disease, which is behind some of the concern over the disease spreading.

“I think another aspect in the dairy industry right now is raising the awareness of how dairy farmworkers can protect themselves from infections,” he said.

Pekosz said the other concern is with other animals on farms. For example, if chickens get infected, the result and spread of the illness can be very deadly. Also, historically, viruses that infect humans often spread through pigs first.

“We’re also concerned this represents a new way that this virus might get exposed to other animals and continue to adapt in a way that might make it better to infect humans,” Pekosz said.

So far, there are no reported cases of infected pigs.

The avian flu is believed to have originally been spread by wild birds and is linked to one farm in Texas, so Pekosz said scientists are paying attention to the migration of birds to the north.

“Those migratory birds are the ones that oftentimes carry this H5N1 virus,” he said.

Pekosz believes you shouldn’t be concerned. With milk, he said, even if it came from an infected cow, the pasteurization process has proven very effective at killing avian viruses.

“There really is virtually no risk right now, with respect to the milk population anywhere in the country, to be honest,” he said.

For homeowners who have bird feeders, he said they also should not be concerned about catching the illness or stop feeding the birds. He said the best advice is to always wash your hands when filling feeders because bird feces can carry bacteria and other things that are worse than avian flu.

“It’s a good reminder to just practice … good hand hygiene when you’re out and about, coming into contact with animals, or especially wild animals,” he said.

Now, if you find a dead bird, stay away from it and report it to state wildlife officials who may want to test the animal for the virus.

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Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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