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State officials urge public to protect against bird flu at county fairs, petting zoos

Basic hygiene measures help prevent possible virus transmission when interacting with dairy cattle, other farm animals

A man leads a cow in a cattle barn.
A man leads a cow in a cattle barn at the Arkansas State Fair in Little Rock, Ark., Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. The fair runs through Oct. 19. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Every summer, county fairs offer visitors the chance to interact with farm animals and celebrate Wisconsin’s tradition of agriculture. 

But state officials are encouraging families to be more proactive about handwashing and other health precautions this year as avian flu affects surrounding states.

Wisconsin hasn’t had a case of the highly-contagious H5N1 virus in dairy cattle and hasn’t seen a new case in poultry since January. But the virus has infected cows in over 100 herds across 12 states since it was first discovered on a dairy farm in March.

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Angie Maxted, state public health veterinarian for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said while fairs are a great educational opportunity for kids, families should be mindful when visiting petting zoos or interacting with livestock.

“Basic common sense measures to keep yourself safe around animals also extend to avian influenza, such as making sure that hands are washed appropriately, that small children are not able to lick surfaces that animals may have touched or making sure to keep strollers and pacifiers out of animal areas,” Maxted said.

Dairy cattle and poultry are the primary concern for H5N1, but Maxted said swine do carry different types of influenza viruses.

DHS also recommends that people wash clothes and shoes after interacting with livestock and avoid any animals that appear sick.

Jeremy Tjardes of Gibson, Ill., washes his Hereford cow.
Jeremy Tjardes of Gibson, Ill., washes his Hereford cow to prepare it for competition at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, Ill., Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010. The Illinois State Fair will begin Aug. 13 and run through Aug. 22. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Avian flu considered low risk to humans, but animal interactions increase hazard

Federal officials continue to report the virus is a low risk to public health. But there have been three cases of avian flu in dairy farm workers who were working with infected cows this spring. 

The first two cases, located in Texas and Michigan, were found in workers who developed an eye infection. The most recent case in Michigan was in a person experiencing upper respiratory symptoms like a cough that are more typically related to influenza viruses.

“There is that possibility of more cases being identified; that would not come as a surprise to us,” said Tom Haupt, respiratory disease epidemiologist for DHS. “We are preparing ourselves as if we’re going to have cases, and we’re going to be working with the local public health departments and providers to be sure that we’re testing people who need to be tested.”

Haupt said there has so far been no human testing for H5N1 in Wisconsin. He said the virus is transmitted through exposure to animals, so state and local health officials are watching for people who have had an interaction prior to developing symptoms. 

“What we are really asking providers to do is ask for animal exposure,” he said. “Do they live on a farm? Have they been to a fair where they have gone through the barns? We want the providers to ask questions about that and also about recent travel.”

Five-year-old Jack Sawyer, of Dillon, Iowa, lies on the back of a cow.
Five-year-old Jack Sawyer, of Dillon, Iowa, lies on the back of a cow in the cattle barn at the Iowa State Fair, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Exhibitors already required to test for influenza as fair season kicks off

Last week, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection announced that people showing lactating dairy cows would be required to test their animals for influenza A ahead fairs and exhibitions in the state. A federal order requiring a negative influenza test prior to interstate travel is also still in effect. 

DATCP’s State Veterinarian Darlene Konkle said around 680 Wisconsin cattle have been tested for the virus so far. She said every year, DATCP asks fairs to report any instances of animal illness during an event.

“Each fair that lasts longer than 24 hours has a veterinarian that they work with who monitors the animals daily,” Konkle added.

State ag officials have also encouraged exhibitors to avoid sharing milking equipment and other tools between cows from different herds and isolating animals that return from a fair from their home herd for at least two weeks. 

Konkle said there is no evidence that the virus is going undetected in the state’s herds at this time. DATCP has encouraged dairy producers to be proactive about testing for the virus, which she said is good for both preventing further spread and for the affected farm.

“The states that have (confirmed) cases reported being able to have those herds clear cases more quickly when they knew about it early,” she said, adding that cases of influenza are required to be report to the state.

Konkle said the agency is also working with farms to understand what happens if they have a positive case. She said the vast majority of cattle that have contracted the virus recover over a period of several weeks.