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$200M From Federal Government Aims to Stop Spread of H5N1 Among Dairy Cows

By Malinda Larkin

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced May 10 that it will devote $98 million to enhance its response efforts to highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI, more specifically avian influenza type A H5N1), particularly among dairy cattle. Part of the money will go toward financial incentives for livestock producers with H5N1-affected farms who improve on-site biosecurity to contain the spread of H5N1. The department is also taking steps to compensate producers for lost milk production in dairy herds affected by H5N1.

In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the same day that it will provide $101 million in new funding to mitigate the risk of H5N1 by continuing its work to protect public health and the safety of the food supply.

This will mean increased testing and laboratory screening and testing capacity, genomic sequencing, and other interventions by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—both overseen by the HHS.

The news comes after H5N1 has been confirmed in dairy cattle in nine states since May 17: 15 herds in Michigan, 13 in Texas, eight in New Mexico, six in Idaho, four in Kansas, two in Colorado, and one each in Ohio, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

Plus, seven sick or dead cats on dairy farms in Texas, New Mexico, and Ohio also have tested positive for H5N1. The virus has been confirmed so far in one dairy farm worker in an area of Texas where the virus has been found in dairy cattle and wild birds. This person had solely mild symptoms (conjunctivitis) and has since recovered.

Since January 2022, HPAI had been confirmed in 502 wild birds and 60 mammal species, primarily carnivores, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization.

Financial incentives needed

The USDA, through its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), says it will help offset costs for eligible producers with H5N1-positive herds. The money will come from USDA’s Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish Program (ELAP).

“While dairy cows that have been infected with H5N1 generally recover well, and there is little mortality associated with the disease, it does dramatically limit milk production, causing economic losses for producers with affected premises,” according to the announcement.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) has estimated the economic impact of H5N1 for dairy cattle to be $100 to $200 per cow.

“If you have, say, a 1,000-cow dairy, in two to three weeks, you can expect to lose $100,000 to $200,000, not including the long-term impact from the disease, decreased herd size, or other potential effects,” said Dr. Fred Gingrich, AABP executive director.

He expressed appreciation for the new funding authorized to help producers manage and prevent the disease. However, the announcement came up short in one major area: no indemnity payments for losses on dairy farms.

“One of the barriers to reporting and disclosure from dairy producers is there is no incentive to report,” Dr. Gingrich said. “It is critical for us to understand the disease, control it’s spread, figure out the epidemiology, and understand the long- and short-term impacts to not only our industry, but also the entire agriculture sector and human health. We need federal funding for indemnity payments.”

The USDA has already allocated more than $750 million to address indemnity, diagnostics, field activities, and other emergency response costs related to stop the virus’s spread among farmed birds. Since February 8, 2022, when the USDA first found H5N1 in a commercial poultry flock, the virus has struck 1,138 commercial and backyard flocks in 48 states and led to the culling of 90.89 million birds, mainly egg-laying chickens, broilers, turkeys, and ducks.

“This is the same virus in birds as it is in cows. The reason poultry producers report affected herds is because they are paid for mortalities associated with depopulation to control the disease,” Dr. Gingrich said. “We don’t know if this disease is dying out as we leave the classic flu season or if it is underreported or if it is going to continue to spread. We do know there is no incentive for dairy farms to report.”

Additional details on how dairy farmers can access and apply for the financial tools is forthcoming, according to the USDA announcement.

“They did say they would release funding through the ELAP program, but thus far, we don’t have clear guidance on what that would look like,” Dr. Gingrich said.

Biosecurity activities

The USDA also will provide up to $28,000 per dairy farm to support increased biosecurity activities over the next 120 days. The incentives for H5N1-affected premises are as follows:

  • Up to $10,000 to reimburse dairy farmers for veterinarian costs incurred for treating cattle infected with H5N1, as well as fees for veterinarians to collect samples for testing. This can include veterinary fees or specific supplies needed for treatment and sample collection. Veterinary costs are eligible to be covered from the initial date of positive confirmation at the USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL) for that farm.
  • Up to $2,000 per month for dairy farmers who supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees or provide outerwear uniform laundering. These producers must also have their employees participate in a workplace and farmworker study conducted by the USDA and CDC.
  • Up to $2,000 per month for dairy farmers who establish a system to heat treat all waste milk before disposal in accordance with FDA standards.
  • Up to $1,500 to develop biosecurity plans based on existing secure milk supply plans. This includes recommended enhanced biosecurity for people who frequently move between dairy farms, such as milk haulers, veterinarians, and feed trucks. In addition, the USDA will provide a $100 payment to producers who purchase and use an in-line sampler for their milk system.
  • Covering the cost of shipping samples to National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN) laboratories for testing. Specifically, the department will cover up to $100—two shipments at $50 each—per month. Testing at NAHLN laboratories for samples associated with this event, such as testing sick cows or to comply with the federal order, is already being conducted at no-cost to the farmer.

Additionally, the USDA will work with states with affected herds to limit the movement of lactating cattle within their borders to reduce further spread of H5N1 between herds. This work builds on the federal order issued April 24 by APHIS that requires lactating dairy cattle, prior to interstate movement, to receive a negative result of testing for influenza type A virus, as performed by an approved NAHLN laboratory.

Dr. Gingrich said there’s currently no clear guidance for when a herd tests positive for HPAI.

“They say there’s a 30-day quarantine and that producers should work with state animal health officials and their veterinarian to move animals to slaughter, but that’s not clear guidance,” he said. “Dairy farmers and veterinarians are concerned if they have an impacted herd, they can’t move any animals off the farm for any reason, which has significant impacts on animal welfare and financially on farms.”

CDC and FDA funding

Meanwhile, the FDA has been assisting with laboratory testing at USDA laboratories while the CDC has been encouraging producer and industry cooperation with public health officials to get vital information necessary to assess the level of risk of H5N1 to human health.

“Although the CDC’s assessment of the risk of avian influenza infection for the general public continues to remain low at this time, these investments reflect the department’s commitment to prioritizing the health and safety of the American public,” according to the May 10 announcement.

The CDC is putting $93 million in additional funding toward increased testing and laboratory capacity, surveillance, genomic sequencing; support for partner efforts to reach high risk populations; and starting a new wastewater surveillance pilot program.

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