How concerning is it if traces of the bird flu are detected in our wastewater systems?

Rosie Nguyen Image
Tuesday, June 11, 2024 2:53AM
Can bird flu affect humans? How traces could impact wastewater systems
State Health Services says the public's risk of bird flu is low after a case was reported in the Texas panhandle and traces were detected in Austin.

Two months after the first human case of the bird flu was confirmed in the Texas panhandle, the City of Austin reported that it detected traces of the virus in its wastewater systems. However, city officials said there are no human cases, and the risk to the public is low.

RELATED: 1st human case of bird flu reported in Texas linked to exposure to sick cattle

Last Friday, ABC13 asked Harris County Public Health in the Houston area if any traces of the H5N1 virus had been detected in the fourth largest U.S. city and surrounding areas. As of Monday evening, the county health department still hasn't provided an answer.

However, Chris Van Deusen with the Texas Department of State Health Services said that even if the answer is "yes," it doesn't necessarily mean that there are people in our communities who are infected.

He explained that traces of the dead virus could still be detected in milk that has been pasteurized if it came from a cow with the bird flu. If someone pours that milk down the drain, that's one it could end up in wastewater systems.

"The way most wastewater testing is done, it's through a test called PCR. What that sort of looks for is fragments of the genetic materials in a virus. So it doesn't necessarily mean it's a live virus," Van Deusen said. "One thing that could be going on here is the milk coming from cows in another part of the state and going down the drain in our sewer systems."

He emphasized that pasteurized milk from an infected cow does not pose a risk to humans because pasteurization kills viruses and other bacteria.

According to Texas DSHS, there have not been any additional human cases reported in Texas since the first one in April. The state health department said the dairy worker recovered fairly quickly and only experienced conjunctivitis, which is redness in the eye. Since then, two other mild cases were found in Michigan.

READ MORE: 2nd human case of bird flu confirmed in Michigan: Health officials

Right now, the virus is not spreading from human to human, which is why there's not very much concern about transmission. However, viruses can mutate, so Van Deusen said Texas DSHS will be keeping an eye on that.

Experts say people working with farm animals are most at risk of the bird flu. They recommend that they always wear protective goggles, masks, and coveralls to protect themselves from infection.

"This shouldn't be the first thing that your average member of the public should think of if they get sick with something. It's probably a cold, the seasonal flu, or some other kind of respiratory illness," Van Deusen said.

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