Connect with us

Science

What you need to know about the bird flu outbreak, concerns about raw milk, and more

Published

on

What you need to know about the bird flu outbreak, concerns about raw milk, and more

There is a bird flu outbreak going on. Here is what you need to know about it:

What is bird flu?

Bird flu is what’s known as a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus. The “highly pathogenic” part refers to birds, which the virus is pretty adept at killing. In virology speak, the virus is of the Influenza A type, and is called H5N1. The “H” stands for the protein Hemagglutinin (HA), of which there are 16 subtypes (H1-H16). The “N” is short for Neuraminidase (NA), of which there are 9 subtypes (N1-N9). There are many possible combinations of HA and NA proteins. The two known type A human influenza viruses are H1N1 and H3N2. (Two additional subtypes, H17N10 and H18N11, have been identified in bats).

When did this bird flu first appear?

The current strain of H5N1 circulating the globe originated in 1996, in farmed geese living in China’s Guangdong province. It quickly spread to other poultry and migrating birds. By the early 2000s, it had spread across southern Asia. By 2005, it was observed in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. In 2014, it showed up in North America, but appeared to peter out here while it still raged in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In 2021, it showed up in wild birds migrating off Canada’s Atlantic coast. Since then, it has spread across North and South America.

What kinds of animals does bird flu effect?

Birds are the primary carriers and victims of the virus. Across the globe, hundreds of millions of wild and domestic birds have died. Since 2021, hundreds of U.S. poultry farms have had to “depopulate” millions of birds after becoming infected, presumably from sick, migrating wild birds. The virus is highly contagious among birds and has a nearly 100% fatality rate. Mammals, too have been infected and died. In most cases, these are scavenging or predatory animals that ate sick birds — and the virus has died in these animals and not become contagious between them. So far, 48 species of mammals have become infected. However, there have been a few cases in which it appears the virus may have spread between mammals, including on European fur farms, on a few South American beaches where elephant seals came to roost, and now among dairy cattle in the United States.

Can humans get bird flu?

Since 2003, when the virus first started spreading through southern Asia, there have been 868 cases of human infection with H5N1 reported, of which 457 were fatal — a 53% case fatality rate. There have been only two cases in the U.S. In 2022, a poultry worker was infected in Colorado and suffered only mild symptoms, including fatigue. In 2024, a dairy worker was infected in Texas and complained only of conjunctivitis, or pink eye.

Advertisement

Why is everyone paying attention to dairy cows?

On March 25, 2024, officials announced that dairy cows in Texas had been infected with bird flu. Since then, the virus has been found in 36 herds across nine states. There are no known cases in California. It is believed that there was a single introduction of the virus from wild bird exposure (either by passive exposure, or maybe from eating contaminated feed), that probably occurred in December in Texas. The virus has since been detected in milk. A study conducted by federal researchers found that 1 in 5 milk samples collected from retail stores had the virus. It is believed that the virus may be passing between cows and that there may be cows that show no symptoms. For the most part, it seems dairy cows only suffer mild illness when infected, and milk production slows. They clear the virus after a few weeks.

Is it safe to drink milk?

Yes — if it is pasteurized milk. Federal officials say the virus they have detected in pasteurized milk samples is inactive and will not cause disease. In the case of raw milk, they urge people to avoid it. That’s because they have found high viral loads in raw milk samples. In addition, studies of barn cats that have consumed raw milk have reported severe consequences. In one cluster of 24 barn cats, half of them died after consuming raw milk, with others suffering blindness, neurological distress and copious nasal discharge. The virus has not been found in sour cream or cottage cheese.

What’s the situation with wastewater?

As health officials and researchers scramble to understand how widespread avian flu is in cattle and the environment, they are analyzing municipal wastewater. One team from Emory University and Stanford University looked at 190 wastewater treatment sites in 41 states. They found a surge of Influenza A virus in the last several weeks at 59 sites. This does not necessarily mean there is bird flu at these sites. However, in places where the team has gone to investigate — including three in Texas where they knew there was H5N1 in dairy cattle — they have found bird flu. Influenza A is generally seasonal in humans — peaking from late fall to early spring. The surge the researchers noticed — including at several sites in California — started after the flu season had died down. Researchers in Texas have also detected H5N1 in the wastewater of nine of 10 cities they tested, all located in Texas. The CDC is also monitoring for Influenza A at roughly 600 sites across the nation.

Advertisement
Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Science

Opinion: Most older Americans who need hearing aids don't use them. Here's how to change that

Published

on

Opinion: Most older Americans who need hearing aids don't use them. Here's how to change that

Having depended on hearing aids for nearly three decades, I’m astounded by the lack of Medicare coverage for devices that can solve a problem afflicting tens of millions of older Americans.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans over age 70 have some degree of hearing loss, and over half of those 75 and older experience impairment serious enough to be considered disabling. But most don’t wear hearing aids.

Because the legislation that created Medicare nearly 60 years ago specifically excluded hearing aids, those who rely on the program’s traditional coverage must pay for them out of pocket. That expense is among the chief barriers to wider use of the devices.

Age-related hearing loss impedes basic communication and the relationships that depend on it. Expanded access to hearing aids could therefore do no less than enable more older Americans to establish and maintain the social connections that are essential to a meaningful life.

Hearing loss is like an invisible, muffling curtain that falls in front of anyone speaking. Asking people to repeat themselves can yield irritated and hurtful responses. And it’s hopeless to ask a soft-spoken person to speak up. Sometimes it’s easier just to nod and smile.

Advertisement

Many older people I know choose to avoid social gatherings altogether because they can’t hear well. Without hearing aids, I’d stay home too.

Hearing loss can harm one’s health in other ways. For example, I’ve written about the need for a comprehensive approach to reducing cancer risk at older ages, including preventive services such as colorectal cancer screening. But these services rely on conversations between patients and their healthcare providers. An older patient’s ability to hear and understand such conversations shouldn’t be taken for granted or ignored.

The Food and Drug Administration did improve access to hearing aids by making some of them available without a prescription in 2022, but the over-the-counter devices are inadequate for serious hearing loss like mine. My private health insurance, meanwhile, started covering hearing aids a few years ago, providing up to $2,500 for them every five years. One hearing aid alone can cost that much or more, however.

Despite its limitations, my private coverage for hearing aids is better than nothing, which is what traditional Medicare provides.

Hearing loss is more common among lower-income people and those without advanced education. The toll from noisy workplaces compounds age-related hearing loss for some. One analysis found that most Americans with a serious hearing disability can’t afford the typical price of hearing aids.

Advertisement

Many of the older adults who can’t come up with these significant out-of-pocket expenses spent their working years in low-wage jobs that our country depends on. Denying them treatment for their hearing loss is a lousy way to treat people who gave years of service to our society.

Although some older adults with hearing loss won’t benefit from hearing aids, Medicare coverage for the devices might encourage more beneficiaries to get their hearing tested so they can get the treatment that’s right for them. And while Medicare coverage alone won’t address the stigma some people associate with hearing aids, the availability of newer, more comfortable and less obvious technology might win over some refuseniks.

Legislation reintroduced with bipartisan support last year would finally correct this glaring gap in Medicare coverage by removing the hearing aid exclusion from the law. There’s no reason to delay action on this any longer. Are our representatives listening?

Mary C. White is an adjunct professor of environmental health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, a Public Voices fellow at AcademyHealth in partnership with the OpEd Project and a former federal epidemiologist.

Advertisement
Continue Reading

Science

Second human case of bird flu detected in Michigan dairy worker

Published

on

Second human case of bird flu detected in Michigan dairy worker

A second human case of bird flu in a diary worker has been confirmed in Michigan, state and federal health officials announced Wednesday.

The symptoms were mild, consisting of conjunctivitis. The Texas dairy worker who contracted the virus in March also came down with pink eye.

At a press call on Wednesday, Nirav Shah, principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the finding was “not unexpected” and that it was a scenario “that we had been preparing for.”

He said that since the discovery of H5N1 in dairy cattle, state and federal health officials have been closely monitoring farmworkers and slaughterhouse workers and urging farmers and farmworker organizations to “be alert, not alarmed.”

Federal officials say they still believe the human health risk of bird flu is low; however, it underscores the need for people who are interacting with infected or potentially infected farm animals or birds to take precautions, including avoiding dead animals and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) if there’s a need to be in close contact.

Advertisement

Though a nasal swab from the person in Michigan tested negative for influenza, an eye swab from the patient was shipped to the CDC and tested positive for influenza A(H5N1) virus.

This is the third case of H5N1 reported in the United States. A poultry worker in Colorado was identified in 2022.

Although the symptoms in the three farmworkers in the U.S. have been mild, people elsewhere in the world have suffered more severe illness, including death. According to the World Health Organization, between Jan. 1, 2003, and March 28, 2024, there have been 888 cases of human infection from 23 countries; 463 were fatal.

In preparation for a more widespread outbreak, the CDC updated its guidance for PPE in dairies and issued a nationwide order for healthcare providers to be on the lookout for novel influenza.

On Tuesday, the CDC asked clinical laboratories and health departments to increase the number of influenza samples being analyzed “to maximize the likelihood of catching a case of H5N1 in the community,” Shah said.

Advertisement

The US Department of Agriculture is also expanding its surveillance and support by providing $1500 to non-infected farms to beef up biosecurity, and $100 to producers who want to buy inline samplers to test their milk. The agency will also provide $2000 per farm to cover veterinary fees for testing, as well as shipping costs to send those tests to laboratories for analysis.

There have been no cases of H5N1 detected in California’s dairy herds.

Officials said ongoing analysis of the nation’s dairy supply suggests it is safe to consume, Despite the risk to human health being low, an official with the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response said it will make Tamiflu available upon request “to jurisdictions that do not have their own stockpile and are responding to pre-symptomatic persons with exposure to confirmed or suspected infected birds, cattle or other animal exposures.”

Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary of the preparedness agency, said it started the “fill and finish” process for approximately 4.8 million doses of vaccine “that is well matched to the currently circulating strain of H5N1 through the national pre-pandemic influenza vaccine stockpile program.”

She said the decision to get started on H5N1 vaccines was not a response to any heightened concern, but since it takes several months to fill and finish vaccine doses, the agency “thought it made sense given what we were seeing.”

Advertisement
Continue Reading

Science

Gas stoves may contribute to early deaths and childhood asthma, new Stanford study finds

Published

on

Gas stoves may contribute to early deaths and childhood asthma, new Stanford study finds

Lung-irritating pollution created by cooking with gas stoves may be contributing to tens of thousands of premature deaths and cases of childhood asthma in the United States, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.

For decades, scientists have known the flames from a gas stovetop produce nitrogen dioxide, a pungent gas that can inflame a person’s lungs when inhaled. But for the first time, a team of researchers from Stanford University and Oakland-based research institute PSE Healthy Energy published a nationwide estimate of the long-term health consequences associated with cooking with natural gas and propane stoves.

Researchers concluded that exposure to nitrogen dioxide emissions alone may contribute to nearly 19,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. It has also resulted in as many as 200,000 current cases of pediatric asthma compared with cooking with electric stoves, which do not produce nitrogen dioxide.

Aggressive and impactful reporting on climate change, the environment, health and science.

Advertisement

Stanford researcher Yannai Kashtan noted higher levels of pollution were correlated with the amount of gas that was burned. But pollution also accumulated at higher levels inside smaller homes.

“If you live in a smaller house, you’re exposed to more pollution, and that can lead to income and racial disparities in exposure,” Kashtan said. “In general, folks living in neighborhoods with higher levels of outdoor pollution also tend to have higher indoor pollution. So this environmental injustice extends indoors as well.”

The American Gas Assn., a trade organization representing more than 200 local energy companies nationwide, dismissed the findings as “misleading and unsupported.”

“Despite the impressive names on this study, the data presented here clearly does not support any linkages between gas stoves and childhood asthma or adult mortality,” the association’s president and CEO, Karen Harbert said in a statement earlier this month.

Advertisement

The study is the latest examining the serious health effects associated with breathing fumes from gas stoves, which release planet-warming carbon emissions and a variety of air pollutants. In recent years, the popular household appliance has become a political hot-button issue as policymakers and regulators have weighed environmental impacts against consumer choice.

Many large cities in California, including Los Angeles, have moved toward phasing out gas stoves in newly constructed residences. Earlier this month, the California Assembly advanced a bill to the Senate that would require gas stoves to come with warning labels detailing the pollution and health effects that can arise from cooking with gas.

Gas stoves emit a variety of pollutants, including asphyxiating carbon monoxide, cancer-causing formaldehyde and benzene. The flame also creates nitrogen dioxide, a precursor to smog and a pollutant that can cause difficulty breathing.

Environmental groups say consumers should be notified about these pollutants and the potential harm they can cause.

“Gas stoves create pollution in our homes, increasing the risk of childhood asthma and other respiratory problems for our families,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director for California Public Interest Research Group. “However, this risk has largely been hidden from the public. Consumers deserve the truth when it comes to the danger of cooking with gas. Warning labels will give consumers what they need to make informed decisions when they purchase appliances for their homes.”

Advertisement

Kashtan and other researchers had previously discovered cooking with gas stoves presented a similar cancer risk as inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke. They also found some gas stoves leaked contaminants even when the burners were off.

The effects are especially devastating to children, whose smaller and still-developing lungs need to take more breaths than adults, Kashtan said. Older adults, especially those with cardiovascular or respiratory illness, are also more vulnerable to pollution from gas stoves.

To alleviate indoor air pollution, experts recommend using ventilation hoods and opening windows while cooking,

Starting in 2008, California required new and redeveloped homes to have ventilation that could prevent pollution from building up indoors. But during their research, measuring emissions in more than 100 households across the country, Yannai said they found many kitchens didn’t have ventilation hoods at all.

Although the health effects of breathing these pollutants are clear, researchers still wonder to what degree these conditions could be reversible. As communities take steps to mitigate their exposure or transition away, he said we could soon see the results.

Advertisement

“It’s never too late to stop breathing in pollution,” he said.

Continue Reading

Trending