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Federal response to avian flu

Q: How is the federal government responding to recent outbreaks of avian flu?

A: As Iowa’s senior U.S. Senator, I’m staying on top of federal agencies with prevention, control, emergency management and public health responsibilities to effectively serve the American people. That includes upholding confidence in the food supply to supporting farm workers and livestock producers.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza can wipe out entire poultry flocks within a matter of days, as we learned from the unprecedented outbreak in 2014-2015. A decade ago, Iowa lost tens of millions of egg-laying hens, chickens and turkeys to the disease. Quarantine protocols and biosecurity measures around the perimeter of infected barns were established to limit infection. Iowans may recall bird exhibits were canceled at county and state fairs to prevent the spread of the disease. At the time, Sen. Ernst and I urged the USDA to work with the private sector to expedite development and commercialization of vaccines and prioritize research and education on avian flu.

Last month, I joined a bipartisan letter urging the USDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration to coordinate their efforts as they work to address and curb emerging avian flu cases, including additional research on wild bird deterrents, vaccines and advanced biosecurity practices.

It’s also important the federal government promptly shares information with the states and American public. For example, the federal Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service coordinates with state officials on the ground to help producers with prevention and mitigation efforts. U.S. poultry barns and dairy herds this year have experienced outbreaks across multiple states. Scientists from the Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory at Iowa State University were among the first to connect the dots between avian flu and sick dairy cows in Texas.

Livestock producers who suspect infection should contact their veterinarian to evaluate the flock or herd. Human infection is rare, although so far this year three people have been diagnosed with avian flu after unprotected exposure to infected animals.

Lessons learned from previous outbreaks are top of mind as we navigate measures to prevent, control and mitigate spread of avian flu. To reduce the risk of infection, the CDC recommends poultry and dairy workers, livestock farmers, veterinary staff and emergency responders take precautions when working with potentially infected or confirmed infections with sick birds, livestock, manure and raw milk. According to the CDC, current public health risk remains low; it recommends people should avoid direct contact with wildlife and keep children and pets away from sick or dead birds.

Q: Have Iowa farms been impacted in the most recent outbreak?

A: The highly pathogenic avian flu recently was detected at an egg-laying farm in Sioux County and a turkey farm in Cherokee County. The public and private sectors need to collaborate to stay on top of this recent outbreak to mitigate spread and protect public health, the food supply and the farm economy. According to the USDA, more than 90 million birds have been euthanized since 2022.

Growing detection in dairy herds has heightened awareness to prevent and curb transmission. More than 80 herds in 10 states have had infected milk cows, including most recently a dairy farm in O’Brien County in northwest Iowa. The CDC and FDA advise consumers that choosing pasteurized milk and dairy products is the best way to keep your family safe. As a precautionary measure to curb transmission among herds, the USDA issued federal rules requiring mandatory testing prior to moving milk cows in interstate commerce.

The federal Department of Agriculture also launched a voluntary pilot program to expand testing for dairy farms, including milk samples. Tracking and containing the virus will help mitigate risk of spreading among neighbors with poultry and dairy operations. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig has called upon Iowa producers to implement infectious disease control measures; limit unnecessary visitors and report symptomatic birds or cattle to health officials at the state Department of Agriculture at (515) 281-5305. As Congress considers appropriations for the next fiscal year, the decision-making process at the policymaking table will need to consider vaccine research, development and storage, as well as the potential impact on exports and limitations presented by the size of U.S. flocks and herds.

As a taxpayer watchdog, I’ll work to help ensure the taxpayer and public health are protected. For example, when federal agencies expedited manufacturing of H1N1 vaccines (swine flu) in 2009, I raised concerns about wasteful spending and the shelf life of the vaccines. Similarly, I’ll keep my thumb on the federal bureaucracy to help prevent mismanagement and government waste and push for adequate funding for a coordinated response to address the impact on public health, food safety, producers, rural communities and the farm economy.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican, represents Iowa.

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