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What are the risks of bird flu in Montana?

The bird flu has been slowly infecting new animals across the country, including dairy cows
Posted at 6:16 AM, Jul 04, 2024

MISSOULA — H5N1 — also known as bird flu — has been slowly infecting new animals across the country, including dairy cows.

A recent development has been that some people who work on dairy farms have also been infected.

While no dairy herds in Montana have been infected by the bird flu that doesn’t mean the virus hasn’t been showing up in other animal populations in the state.

That is something that is raising alarms within the scientific community.

“I think we've had close to 20 flocks here in Montana since 2022 that's impacted about 150,000 birds in the state,” said Montana State Veterinarian Tahnee Szymanski.

In addition to the threat to poultry populations, bird flu has been found in wild birds, lynx, barn cats and even grizzly bears. However, Szymanski noted that transmission from wild animals is currently not a large concern.
“It's really interesting because they're using the genetic sequencing of the virus to show that it's not wild birds that are continuing to spread this particular variant that's in dairy cattle," Szymanski told MTN. "It's actually we're moving cattle around or we're moving the virus around on people, equipment, or whatever.

So what is being done to counteract this virus? MTN visited Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton where researchers have been studying H5N.

Rocky Mountain Laboratories
Research into H5N1, also known as the bird flu, is taking place at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton.

“Influenza. As I've mentioned, it may have mentioned is really kind of a shapeshifter of the virus. It's got a lot of tricks that it can pull," explained Rocky Mountain Laboratories Associate Director for Scientific Management Marshall Bloom.

The evidence so far is that the virus does not appear to be highly transmissible in humans, and scientists are trying to study why that is. Bloom explained there are five key points that they are looking into.

Those are why and how this virus infects certain animals, how can it be detected, how long it lasts on transmissible surfaces, how can they improve vaccines and what kind of countermeasures — such as anti-viral drugs — can be used to slow the virus.

While researchers are concerned about the virus being detected in humans, the concerns for a larger outbreak are still rather minimal at this point.

“This is an interesting disease so far based on the information in the United States that's been available so far. It appears that the risk of people is pretty low, but that could change. And scientists at Rocky Mountain laboratories and elsewhere — across the United States and around the world — are frantically studying this virus to learn more about it to try and guess what it's going to do and come up with effective vaccines and countermeasures." - Rocky Mountain Laboratories Associate Director for Scientific Management Marshall Bloom

“The risk to people right now is low. Our food supply is safe. Our commercial milk supply is safe," Szymanski told MTN. But we just want to be we want to be careful with that” added Szymanski.

Currently, the overall threat of bird flu spreading between animals and people in Montana is rather low, but precautions are still being taken to make sure that remains the case.