CDC closely monitoring cases of bird flu, taking animal to human case seriously: CDC director

Officials have been "preparing for it [in humans] for 20 years."

April 3, 2024, 2:25 PM

Although still confident the risks of avian flu to the human population are low, Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told ABC News they are taking seriously dairy cows being infected in at least 11 farms and, most recently, a human dairy farmer in Texas.

Public health officials have been "working on avian flu and preparing for it [in humans] for 20 years," Cohen said. "We've invested in our ability to test for it, to prevent it, to treat it."

"These are the things that reassure me: 20 years of preparation, no genetic changes to this virus, no human-to-human spread and nothing in the virus in terms of adaptations that would make us think it is more adaptive to human spread," she said.

Cohen said the human who contracted avian flu, discovered last week in Texas, works with dairy cows. They "had mild symptoms; they're doing well and recovering," she added.

Cohen went on to say that the CDC and the U.S. government were "taking this situation very seriously and closely monitoring it." The federal agency is working with local health departments, state health departments and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has, over the last two decades, invested in the ability to prevent and treat the disease, Cohen explained.

There is still no evidence of human-to-human transmission of bird flu, called H5N1, within the United States, she said. The latest evidence shows the virus did not adapt to infect a human.

The fact that the virus does not appear to be passing from person to person is one reason that the CDC feels confident that, at this moment, the risk to the public is low.

Cohen said current tests and treatments still work, and, if needed, there is a capacity to increase manufacturing of Tamiflu, an antiviral medication, millions of doses of which are in the national stockpile. Additionally, vaccines could be developed in an accelerated timeline, she said.

She dismissed any comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic for reasons including the fact that avian flu is not a new virus, medications already exist to treat it, there is no evidence of human-to-human spread and no evidence of the virus having mutated.

While the sick person in Texas was presumed to have been infected by a cow, it remains possible that a bird was also the culprit as both cows and birds were sick and present on the farm, according to Cohen. Local health departments are set to test symptomatic individuals exposed to infected livestock.

Infection can occur between animals and humans due to the virus getting into a person’s eyes, nose, mouth, or if inhaled, according to the CDC. Respiratory transmission in close proximity is believed to be the most likely way the virus is passed on. People who are in close proximity to infected animals may be at greater risk of infection.

There are currently 11 dairy herds with confirmed positive cases in cattle, according to the USDA. This includes seven in Texas, two in Kansas, one in Michigan and one in New Mexico.