First human case of bird flu in Texas detected after contact with infected dairy cattle

Cattle stand in the burn scar from the Smokehouse Creek fire on March. 3, 2024 in Hemphill County.
Cattle stand in the burn scar from the Smokehouse Creek fire on March. 3, 2024 Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

A person in Texas became ill with bird flu after contact with infected dairy cattle, state officials reported Monday.

It’s the first human case of the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza in Texas, and it’s the second recorded in the U.S., according to the health alert state officials issued.

“The risk to the general public is believed to be low; however, people with close contact with affected animals suspected of having avian influenza A(H5N1) have a higher risk of infection,” the alert said.

The patient’s primary symptom was conjunctivitis, or eye redness, according to the alert.

State officials recommend that clinicians should “consider the possibility” of infection in people who have symptoms and a potential risk for exposure, including those who have had close contact with someone infected, contact with affected animals, or contact with unpasteurized milk from dairy farms with infections.

Symptoms can include a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, fatigue, eye redness, shortness of breath, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or seizures. The illness can range from mild to severe, and health care providers who come across someone who may have the virus should “immediately consult their local health department,” according to the alert.

Because eye redness has been observed in these infections before, health care providers like optometrists and ophthalmologists “should be aware of the potential of individuals presenting with conjunctivitis who have had exposure to affected animals,” according to the alert.

The strain, novel avian influenza A(H5N1), started infecting dairy cattle in the Panhandle last week, in another blow to the Texas cattle industry after thousands were lost in historic Texas wildfires. Similar outbreaks were reported at dairies in Kansas and New Mexico.

Lauren Ancel Meyers, professor and director of the Center for Pandemic Decision Science at the University of Texas at Austin, said there is a lot of uncertainty at this point.

"On the positive side, it seems like this was a very mild case and it's the only case that's been identified so far," Meyers said. "But at the same time, it seems like there's quite a bit of this virus that has been detected in cattle populations. Anytime a virus jumps into a new species, especially a rapidly evolving virus like influenza — we need to be approaching it with the utmost caution and vigilance to make sure we really understand the situation."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said there is no safety concern to the commercial milk supply. Consumer health is also not at risk, the department said. The milk from impacted animals is being dumped or destroyed and will not enter the food supply.

Neelam Bohra is a 2023-24 New York Times disability reporting fellow, based at The Texas Tribune through a partnership with The New York Times and the National Center on Disability and Journalism, which is based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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