CDC experts warn more bird flu patients may be on the way

Some experts warn that the bird flu is at least two mutations away from widespread human infection and health systems may see some patients this summer, Medscape reported June 19.

Vivien Dugan, PhD, director of the influenza division at the CDC, told Medscape that her team is working with the Department of Agriculture, FDA and state and local health departments to respond to the bird flu outbreak.

The risk to the general public is still low, she said, but providers should begin asking patients with flu symptoms about their history of occupational exposures. Asking about occupation is not standardized on most electronic health records, but can be important, especially for younger workers on farms and slaughter and processing facilities.

The CDC and government agencies have been working with the poultry industry for years to stop bird flu spread, but transitioning those regulations and policies to cattle farms has not been easy, Dr. Dugan told Medscape

Since April 2024, there have been three human cases of avian influenza in people who work with dairy cows. At least 114 herds have been infected in 12 states as of June 18. However, the U.S. has tested only 45 people across the country for the infection. The lack of testing could make it difficult to determine if the virus begins spreading between people, KFF News reported June 20.

The CDC's bird flu test is the only one approved by the FDA. The test has been distributed to about 100 public health labs in states. 

"We've got roughly a million available now," Nirav Shah, MD, principal deputy director of the CDC, told KFF, "and expect 1.2 million more in the next two months."

But some experts are concerned because physicians generally order tests from clinical laboratories run by companies and universities, which do not currently have authorization to test for bird flu. Clinical labs say the FDA and CDC are not moving fast enough to remove barriers that block them from testing. 

The CDC has given seven companies licenses for its bird flu test, but none have been cleared to use them by the FDA. Some labs have begun developing their own tests but are moving cautiously because of the recent rule change that gives the FDA more oversight of lab-developed tests.

The CDC is asking physicians to send samples of people with flu symptoms who have exposure to cattle or poultry to public health labs.

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