Bill Powers checks on his flock of white turkeys

Bill Powers checks on his flock of white turkeys, which have been kept under shelter all year to prevent exposure to avian influenza, at his farm on November 14, 2022 in Townsend, Delaware.

(Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

US Farmworkers' Advocates Calls for Greater Protections as Bird Flu Spreads

"The focus should be on the dairy farmworker" as the government tries to stop the spread of H5N1, said one advocate.

U.S. health officials in recent months have said the avian flu that's been detected in chickens and cows in some states poses little risk to the general population and to commercial dairy products, but as a third farmworker's diagnosis with the illness was reported Thursday, advocates said officials must do more to protect the laborers who are most at risk.

A farmworker in Michigan was the second person in the state to test positive for H5N1, the avian flu that's currently circulating, and was the first person to report respiratory symptoms. A worker in Texas was also diagnosed with the illness in March and had mild symptoms.

The person whose case was announced Thursday contracted the disease after being exposed to infected cows.

As of late last week, there were 58 cow herds known to be infected across the United States.

The Guardianreported on Wednesday that there have been "anecdotal reports" of other farmworkers exhibiting mild symptoms, and last week federal officials said an unspecified number of people are being "actively monitored" for signs of avian flu, but noted that only 40 people connected to dairy farms had been tested.

Dawn O'Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters on May 22 that authorities are preparing 5 million doses of a vaccine against H5N1, often referred to as bird flu. Offiicals have not yet decided whether shots will be offered to farmworkers when they're deployed later this year.

Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for United Farm Workers (UFW), said that while vaccines are being prepared, authorities must ramp up a testing campaign to stop the spread of the virus and protect the country's 150,000 dairy farmworkers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled a push earlier this month to encourage workers at affected dairy farms to get tested, offering them a financial incentive of $75.

But with undocumented immigrants who lack health insurance making up a large portion of the agricultural workforce, said Strater, many will likely feel they can't risk testing positive and being required to stay home from work for just $75.

"That's not even a day's lost work," Strater told The Guardian on Wednesday. "And that's a very bad gamble for someone that might miss weeks... They're unlikely to go to the emergency room for anything that isn't life-threatening. In fact, they're avoiding testing because they know they won't get any compensation if they're ordered to stop working."

Bethany Boggess Alcauter, director of research and public health programs at the National Center for Farmworker Health, toldUSA Today that farmworkers are currently being treated as "canaries in the coal mine," but "they could be trained to be frontline public health defenders," with authorities sharing far more information about the disease with them.

"Education needs to be a part of testing efforts, with time for workers to ask questions," Alcauter told the outlet.

As the third human case of H5N1 was reported on Thursday, UFW called for "protective equipment and paid sick leave" for farmworkers.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked states to provide personal protective equipment to farmworkers. USA Todayreported this week that the response has varied from state to state:

State health departments in California, Texas, and Wisconsin, which have large dairy industries, all said they have offered to distribute such equipment.

Chris Van Deusen, a Texas health department spokesperson, said four dairy farms had requested protective equipment from the state stockpile. He said other farms may already have had what they needed. Spokespeople for the California and Wisconsin health departments said they did not immediately receive requests from farm owners for the extra equipment.
Amy Liebman, chief program officer for the Migrant Clinicians Network, criticized the federal government's current response to the spread of H5N1, and told The Guardian that "the focus should be on the dairy farmworker."

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