In a rare case of animal-to-human transmission, someone in Texas has tested positive for bird flu after coming in close contact with infected cows. The case is the second reported transmission to humans in the United States.

A health alert from the Texas Department of State Health Services on Monday announced the first human case of novel avian influenza A(H5N1) there. “The patient became ill following contact with dairy cows presumed to be infected with avian influenza,” the alert said. “The patient’s primary symptom was conjunctivitis.”

Symptoms of conjunctivitis include red, watery and itchy eyes.

The alert noted that bird flu has “only rarely been transmitted from person to person. As such, 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 asks health care providers “to be vigilant for people with signs and symptoms” of avian flu.

The Texas outbreak

In March, animals including wild birds, cats and dairy cows in Texas and Kansas were tested because they seemed ill. Some tested positive for the influenza — the first time the bird flu has been found in cattle in the U.S.

Agriculture experts often look for bird flu in poultry nationally and have found some in Texas poultry, the alert said.

This week, Utah imposed dairy cattle restrictions over fear the flu would spread there, as KSL reported. No bird flu has been detected in Utah cattle.

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“The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is now requiring that farmers have certificates of veterinary inspection within seven days of transport if the cattle is coming in from Texas, Kansas, New Mexico or any other state affected by a suspected bird flu outbreak among cattle. A statement that the cattle herd has had no signs of the disease must also be included on all certificates,” per the news story.

KSL noted that “the highly pathogenic avian influenza has been a major issue for the past two years, impacting millions of wild and farm birds, including ones in Utah. More than 131 million poultry worldwide either died from the disease or were killed off in 2022 alone,” citing The Associated Press.

A year ago, Deseret News reported that the Biden administration was pondering whether to vaccinate poultry against the illness. At the time, The New York Times was reporting that the bird flu outbreak, which was unprecedented in size, had affected at least 58 million farm birds in 47 states, in addition to wild birds. Besides that, minks, raccoons, foxes and bears had tested positive, “raising fears that the virus that causes it could mutate and start spreading more easily among people.”

But health officials said then and continue to say that the risk to humans is very low, with transmission extremely rare.

About bird flu

As the name suggests, avian influenza, which is viral, transmits bird to bird most of the time. There are two strains, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture: one seen a lot in wild birds that causes little, if any, symptomatic illness, and a strain found primarily in domestic poultry. That one, called high pathogenic avian influenza, makes birds very sick and is often fatal.

USA Today reported that bird flu cost the government roughly $660 million and was largely responsible for recent price jumps for eggs and poultry.

The alert from the Texas officials noted that symptoms of avian influenza infection include:

  • Fever of 100°F or more, with possible chills.
  • Cough.
  • Sore throat.
  • Stuffy or runny nose.
  • Headache.
  • Feeling tired or achy.
  • Red eyes (conjunctivitis).
  • Breathing problems.
  • Digestive symptoms like diarrhea, nausea or vomiting.
  • Seizures.

Per the health alert, “Illness in humans with avian influenza A(H5N1) virus have ranged from mild to severe. Reports of severe avian influenza A(H5N1) illness in humans have included fulminant pneumonia leading to respiratory failure, acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock, and death.”

While emphasizing the low risk, the alert said people can protect themselves by washing their hands often, covering coughs and sneezes, not handling dead birds and animals and staying home if they don’t feel well. For the most part, the advice is the same with any sickness.