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Scientists raise concerns about underestimating spread of bird flu due to lack of testing: 'Has caught people tremendously by surprise'

"We've never seen this amount of infection, nor have we seen it move so fast."

"We've never seen this amount of infection, nor have we seen it move so fast."

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The best way to prevent a disease from spreading is to study how it's transmitted. In the case of the avian flu, researchers are warning that a lack of testing is putting people at risk.

What's happening?

Previously, bird flu has spread rampantly among both wild and farmed birds. The first time it was identified in mammals was at a mink farm in 2022 — now, it's cropping up in cattle. 

Most significantly, a Texas dairy worker recently tested positive for the virus, marking the first known mammal-to-human transmission and raising alarm.

To better understand how the virus is mutating and spreading, researchers need to conduct more testing. However, for both political and personal reasons, that research is not happening.

Much of the resistance comes from the agriculture industry, and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller told the Biden administration to "back off" after they pushed for more testing. In other cases, a fear of loss of income for the farmers is speculated to be the driving factor. In some instances, people don't realize they are infected.

Nevertheless, researchers have been able to test commercially available milk and have found that avian flu is more prominent in dairy products than previously thought.

"This epizootic has caught people tremendously by surprise," Gregory Gray, a professor of infectious diseases, told the Guardian. "We've never seen this amount of infection, nor have we seen it move so fast."

Why is avian flu so troubling?

Avian flu is extremely dangerous to both animals and people. In humans, the mortality rate in infected individuals is 50-60%. Without access to testing, scientists won't have a clear understanding of how the virus is mutating and how it might continue to do so.

Perhaps most worrisome is that as the planet continues to heat up, the likelihood of increased bird flu transmission grows. 

Multiple studies have found that increases in global temperatures are responsible for altering the migratory patterns of wild birds. As a result, those birds come in contact with other species that they might not normally interact with.

"All of this is impacted by climate change," said Matthew Scotch of Arizona State University. "This includes avian influenza and the introduction of other highly pathogenic viruses that can evolve to cause human-to-human outbreaks."

What's being done?

Gray pointed out that compensating dairy farms for disease-related losses could be an important step in giving researchers access to study transmission rates among cattle.

Additionally, local governments can work to identify diseases in their regions to catch possible outbreaks before they spread.

It's also important to stay educated about climate issues. To get started, check out the TCD Guide's section on taking local climate action.

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