Reports last week of a Colorado man being the first human in the United States to test positive for the H5N1 strain of avian flu (Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, also known as HPAI) raised many red flags in state and local health departments across the country.
The USDA says the highly contagious H5N1 virus has spread among bird populations in more than 30 U.S. states, affecting both wild birds and commercial and backyard poultry flocks. Colorado officials say the affected flock that the victim there was working near has been euthanized and disposed of.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the man’s positive test result could be due to surface contamination of the nasal membrane, without causing infection. But officials also said the “appropriate public health response” was to assume it was an infection and took the actions to contain and treat it.
The CDC says the virus is still a low threat to humans (a man in Britain who also worked on a poultry operation was diagnosed in January but remained asymptomatic). However, the report out of Colorado did prompt CDC officials to promote the protocols laid out in One Health, a collaborative, multisectoral and transdisciplinary approach to this and other outbreaks of animal-related diseases.
The CDC promotes the One Health approach to address the threat of Zoonotic diseases that can spread between animals and people, including rabies, Salmonella infection, West Nile virus infection, anthrax, Lyme disease and Ebola. The agency asserts the approach involves experts in human, animal, environmental health, and other relevant disciplines and sectors in monitoring and controlling public health threats and to learn about how diseases spread among people, animals, plants, and the environment.
However, for any response to be effective, there must be a free exchange of information and unfettered collaboration. All parties must be forthcoming about any developments that may exacerbate the problem or securely contain it. Towards this end, incentives are needed for livestock producers to self-report about factors in their operations that could contribute to any outbreak. Of course, the health authorities who gather this information must engage in full consultation with livestock producers – the sector most immediately and, often, drastically affected by these outbreaks – in the development of health protocols. They must recognize that decisions they make can affect the livelihoods of those who produce our food, feed and fiber. No edict should be made without the full input of those they aim to regulate.
The need to better prepare for outbreaks has grown increasingly obvious in recent times, given that human populations are growing and expanding into new geographic areas, putting more people in close contact with wild and domestic animals, both livestock and pets. Closer contact with animals and their environments provides more opportunities for diseases to pass between animals and people.
Changes in climate and land use over the years have brought about disruptions in environmental conditions and habitats can provide new opportunities for diseases to pass to animals. Greater international travel and trade has also given diseases a wider opportunity to spread quickly across borders and around the globe.
In promoting the One Health approach, the CDC needs to embrace “uncommon collaboration” with livestock producers and develop strategies that incentivize those who are on the ground working with these animals every day to share their knowledge with officials. When developing the tools and practices like those suggested by the One Health approach, SfL calls on livestock producers to fully share their expertise and knowledge with public health officials. Those officials, in turn, must fully consult with the greatest source of expertise available on how best to identify and apply the practices that can make human and animal interaction safer – the people who raise our livestock.