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Rising Bird Flu Threat Among Farmworkers Sparks Urgent Calls for Testing

Visual Representation for testing conducted for bird flu

United States: With the increasing threat of bird flu virus among the humans, the health experts have been working to develop effective vaccine against the infection.

Recently, another concern has been raised about testing of the farm workers who have been facing intense exposure to the bird flu virus. Along with this, they are also raised concerns regarding the lack of resources to fall back on if any of them became ill.

The health experts have shared the concerning statement after three people have tested positive of bird flu virus, which has been predominantly spreading among the cows and cattle. In two out of three cases, the common symptom seen is eye irritation, whereas in third case, the infected farmworker experiences cough and sore throat, as reported by kqed.org.

Comments by Experts!

After an increase in the number of cases, scientists have issued warnings that the virus could mutate to spread from one human to another, and this tendency of the virus has sparked pandemic risks. An expert has further explained that regular testing and monitoring will surely assist in tracking the infections and knowing how dangerous and severe the infection is and can become.

Director of strategic campaigns for the national group United Farm Workers – Elizabeth Strater mentioned that the general public has shown interest towards testing but farmworkers are not getting proper treatment due to lack of health insurance and paid sick leave. She further briefed that they are unlikely to visit doctors unless they become very ill.

Strater highlighted that approximately 150,000 individuals are employed within the US dairy sector. She conveyed that many advocates for these workers suspect the virus’s prevalence exceeds the figures revealed by current testing. “The current surveillance methodology for vulnerable workers is exceedingly passive,” she remarked, as reported by kqed.org.

On May 22, federal authorities informed the press that merely 40 individuals affiliated with US dairy operations had undergone testing for the virus, although additional individuals are under “active observation” for symptoms.

Recently, federal officials disclosed an initiative to remunerate farm laborers $75 each for virus testing as part of a novel program incentivizing farm proprietors to facilitate testing of their dairy herds.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledged the necessity of garnering cooperation and trust from frontline dairy workers.

CDC spokesperson Rosa Norman, in an email, explained that the incentive compensates workers for their participation in tracking infection rates, illness severity, and potential human-to-human transmission of the virus.

She noted the CDC’s assessment that the virus currently poses a minimal threat to public health.

Conversely, Strater is skeptical about the incentive for farm laborers to undergo testing. If a worker tests positive, they would likely be directed to seek medical care and subsequently remain home, which they cannot afford.

“That turns into a terrible deal for USD 75 because, at week’s end, they need to provide for their families,” she stated, as per kqed.org.

Katherine Wells, the public health director in Lubbock, Texas, mentioned that state health officials would offer short-term medical aid, like the flu treatment Tamiflu, to farmworkers. However, she noted these measures wouldn’t necessarily cover hospitalization if needed.

She highlighted that workers’ primary concern seems to be the potential need to stay home or the risk of losing their jobs if they test positive.

Many farmworkers hail from other countries and often endure harsh working conditions for meager wages.

Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, indicated that these workers might fear attention to their cases could ignite anti-immigrant sentiment.

Historically, marginalized communities have often been blamed for spreading infectious diseases. For instance, Latino immigrants faced verbal attacks during the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic in 2009, with some media figures exploiting the outbreak to advocate for stricter immigration controls.

Bethany Boggess Alcauter, the director of research and public health programs at the National Center for Farmworker Health, noted that many dairy farm workers have received scant information about the new disease affecting the cows they handle. “Education must be integrated into testing efforts, allowing workers time to ask questions,” she advised.

She emphasized that these discussions should occur in the workers’ native languages and be led by individuals they trust.

Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, stressed that public health officials need to clearly communicate that workers’ immigration status will not be reported during the investigation of the new flu virus. “We are not acting as law enforcement,” he affirmed.

During a press conference on May 22, Dawn O’Connell, an administrator at the Department of Health and Human Services, announced that nearly 5 million doses of a vaccine against H5N1, the bird flu virus affecting cattle, are being prepared. However, it has not yet been decided whether these vaccines will be offered to farmworkers when available later this year.

The CDC requested in early May that states provide personal protective equipment to farm owners to help shield workers from the bird flu virus. State health departments in California, Texas, and Wisconsin, which have significant dairy industries, have offered to distribute such equipment, the reports by kqed.org mentioned.

Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the Texas Health Department, mentioned that four dairy farms requested protective gear from the state stockpile, while other farms may already possess necessary equipment. Spokespeople for the California and Wisconsin health departments reported no immediate requests from farm owners for additional equipment.

Strater, representing the United Farm Workers, stated that protective equipment must be pragmatic.

She noted that most dairy workers already utilize waterproof aprons, boots, and gloves. Expecting them to wear N95 masks in the humid, sweltering conditions of milking operations is unrealistic. Instead, she suggested plastic face shields as a more feasible option to prevent milk from splashing into workers’ eyes, where it could cause infection.

Other agricultural workers, such as those handling poultry, also face potential infection risks. However, scientists warn that the virus variant spreading among cattle could be particularly perilous due to its adaptation to mammalian hosts.

Strater expressed her deepest concerns for dairy workers, who spend 10 to 12 hours daily in enclosed spaces with cows, according to kqed.org.

Furthermore, she said, “Their faces are approximately 5 inches away from the milk and the udders all day long. The intimacy of it, where their face is so very close to the infectious material, is different.”

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