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Dairy cows test positive for bird flu, but officials say risk to public is low


Livestock in multiple states have tested positive for bird flu in recent days, the first time the disease has spread to dairy cows. Officials say the risk to the public remains low. But as NPR's Joe Hernandez reports, experts say the strain of bird flu is more potent than others and is infecting more animals than before.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: One of the first states where dairy cows tested positive for bird flu was Texas. The infections were troubling to local officials, but so far they haven't had much of an impact. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller says livestock haven't gotten very sick, and farmers haven't had to get rid of too much affected milk.

SID MILLER: The good news is this is not a serious problem. It's not going to bankrupt anybody. The cows basically have the flu for a week and they get over it.

HERNANDEZ: The USDA reported other confirmed cases in Kansas and Michigan, and says some dairy cows in New Mexico and Idaho are probably also positive. Officials believe wild birds likely gave the cows bird flu, also known as highly pathogenic avian influenza, but it's the first known occurrence in dairy livestock.

JOHANNA HARVEY: We haven't seen this bird-to-mammal spread in an agricultural setting. Should we have expected it? Possibly.

HERNANDEZ: Johanna Harvey is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland. She says wild birds shed the virus into the soil and water where other animals can pick it up. But Harvey notes that this particular strain of bird flu appears to be more potent than previous ones, sickening more animals and persisting through warmer months when other viruses might typically taper off.

HARVEY: There are distinct changes in this virus that have facilitated what we see as increased global spread and species impacts.

HERNANDEZ: Still, federal and state officials emphasize that the public has a low risk of catching the virus, which can be spread through close contact with infected birds. The outbreak also isn't expected to tie up the milk supply. Milk from sick cows is discarded, and pasteurization kills off bacteria and viruses, including this one.

Joe Hernandez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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