U.S. Government Announces New Financial Incentives For Farms To Stem The Spread Of Bird Flu In Dairy Cattle

The US government announced new financial incentives for farms to test for and protect against H5N1 bird flu in dairy cattle. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

By Brenda Goodman, CNN

(CNN) — Newly announced financial incentives to farms to help stem the spread of bird flu in dairy cattle drew mixed reviews Friday, as some farmers said they were grateful for money to help buffer the economic impact but advocates for farm workers questioned whether the money paid to workers would be enough to encourage more testing for the H5N1 virus.

As part of the plan, announced Friday by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture, the government will pay up to $28,000 per farm over the next four months to support specific steps to prevent the spread of bird flu in dairy cattle. About $98 million will be funneled to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to fund the program.

The USDA confirmed the first bird flu infection in cows in late March. Since then, more than 40 herds have tested positive in nine states.

Right now, health officials say, the virus doesn’t transmit efficiently from person to person, making the risk to humans low. But scientists have said that having the infection spreading in domesticated animals like cattle is risky because it puts the virus in closer proximity to people, where it could adapt and evolve to become a fully human pathogen. If that happens, researchers say, it could spark another pandemic.

“I think it’s fair to say that our top priority at USDA, given our mission, is to contain this as an animal health event,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Friday. “Ultimately, we want to eliminate the virus in the industry and develop over time a vaccine to prevent another emergency of H5N1 in cattle.”

The USDA has acknowledged that some dairy producers have been wary of letting the government come onto their farms to test livestock. Farm workers with symptoms have also reportedly been reluctant to be tested for H5N1 influenza, since most are not compensated if they need to take time off for illness.

As part of the plan announced Friday, the USDA will provide financial support — up to $2,000 per affected farm per month — for producers who supply personal protective equipment to their workers or help them wash their uniforms. Financial support is also available to farmers who allow their workers to participate in a study through the USDA and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Workers who participate in the CDC study would also be compensated for their time.

Dr. Nirav Shah, principal deputy director of the CDC, said workers would get $75 for participating in an interview as well as providing a nasal swab and a blood sample, although he said they didn’t have to do all three.

Advocates for farm workers said they were skeptical that the $75 payment would be enough to encourage more testing.

“There are some really significant resources that are being allocated to the owners of the cattle. But far less is being advocated to the workers who are in close contact and at high risk working in those milking parlors,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for United Farm Workers.

“$75 is not going to seem like a good gamble to someone who may be looking at much longer off of work. And $75 isn’t going to feed their families,” she said.

Strater estimates that there are between 150,000 and 200,000 dairy workers in the US.

“This is not a huge amount of people. But if you think about how important to protecting the public health that would be, you would think that we will be putting all of our resources into a protective ring around these folks,” she said.

Strater says there’s a real reluctance on the part of farm workers to be tested, even when they have symptoms, because a positive test could mean time off work.

“The testing situation is really challenging,” said Bethany Alcauter, director of research and public health programs for the National Center for Farmworker Health.

The way we now find out about human cases of H5N1 is “a very passive system,” she said.

Alcauter says public health officials assume that if someone has influenza symptoms, they’ll go to a doctor, who will take an occupational health history, and if the worker tests positive for the flu, the doctor will send that person’s swab to a state public health lab to be tested for H5N1. “But that’s not a very realistic scenario,” she said, noting that only a few dozen people had been tested for the H5N1 virus after exposure to cattle.

Besides payments to help assist farms in protecting their workers, payments of up to $1,500 per farm will be available to aid in the development of biosecurity plans. The USDA will offer dairy farms $100 to purchase a piece of equipment called an in-line sampler so their milk can be tested as it travels between cows and holding tanks.

Another $2,000 will be available to farms that heat treat their wasted milk before it is disposed.

The USDA will also cover up to $10,000 of veterinary costs at farms where cattle have tested positive for H5N1 and will cover the cost of shipping samples to testing labs in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network.

The government says it will also compensate farmers for lost milk production if their cows get sick.

The National Milk Producers Federation said it was pleased by the announcement of additional financial help to dairy farmers.

“We look forward to continued collaboration and consultation with USDA and other federal agencies as we monitor, understand, and contain this outbreak, and we will do what we can to help dairy farmers understand and benefit from these initiatives as swift implementation is put into motion,” the group said in a statement.

In addition, HHS is going to send an additional $101 million in funding to the CDC and the US Food and Drug Administration to help fund their H5N1 response efforts.

“We’ve identified 93 million to be used by CDC to expand our monitoring of people exposed to infected animals, to scale up our testing and analysis capabilities, to determine whether candidate vaccines are effective and to manufacture, store, and distribute additional influenza diagnostic kits,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said.

Another $8 million will be given to the FDA to support to the agency’s ability to conduct surveillance at different points in the milk production system, Becerra said.

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