Texas reports case of bird flu passed from sick cattle, but risk to the public is still low

A person working with infected cattle became sick with avian influenza this week. 

By Sarah AschApril 2, 2024 10:15 am, ,

Texas has one confirmed case of bird flu in a person after diagnosing the same illness in dairy cows in the Panhandle in recent weeks.

The person had direct contact with the sick cows before becoming infected, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

So far, there are no signs that the virus has evolved in ways that would help it spread more easily among people, federal officials have said.

Dr. Jennifer Shuford, the commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the person who tested positive for bird flu is already improving. 

“Thankfully, the case that has been identified of avian influenza in a human, that person is doing better and improving,” she said. “That person had a really minor illness. And the symptom that they complained of was conjunctivitis, which means just redness and irritation of the eyes. That’s not always really common with seasonal influenza, but it has been seen more in these avian influenza infections in people.” 

Shuford said avian influenza typically spreads from birds to people, and this case is unusual since the spread was from another mammal species to a person.

“It’s an influenza virus. And so it’s spread often by breathing it in or by contacting the eyes, the nose or the mouth. There is also a potential that if somebody touches something and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth, that it could be passed that way,” she said.

“A lot of this right now is being passed directly from birds to mammals or birds to humans. In this case, we suspect that it did go from a cow to a person. We haven’t seen a lot of transmission of this particular avian influenza between mammals or between humans. A lot of it’s just been in contact with sick birds.”

» RELATED: Bird flu found in Texas dairies, but don’t worry about buying milk

Shuford said the risk to the general public from this virus is still low. 

“We are working right now with dairy farms and dairy producers across Texas, since that’s where this has been identified in cows and where this one particular case came from in working with sick cattle,” she said. “And so we’re working with them to make sure that they’ve got proper precautions in place for workers who are working with sick animals, and that they know how to get tested and to prevent the spread of this on those particular farms.”

Shuford said the best step people can take to prevent infection is to avoid contact with birds. 

“Avian influenza is usually in birds and so that’s wild migratory birds as well as poultry,” she said. “We’re telling people just that if they see dead or sick animals to not come in contact with them.

If that’s part of their job, though, they should be wearing the correct protective equipment. That includes things like gloves and a mask and goggles and coveralls and boot covers to really protect themselves from being in contact with that virus.”

Shuford said that despite the origin of the virus in this case, milk and other dairy products are still safe to consume. 

“Thankfully with these dairies that have been impacted, this milk is pasteurized and that pasteurization process kills this influenza virus. And so that pasteurization process should keep the current milk supplies safe,” she said.

“In addition, they don’t put milk from sick cows into the milk supply (as an extra precaution). And so all of that milk is getting diverted and disposed of. But the milk that is entering the milk supply is pasteurized and therefore should be safe for human consumption.”

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