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First human case of novel avian influenza A(H5N1) in Texas

Written By: Vicki Powers, UT Physicians | Updated: April 3, 2024
H5N1 test tube

The health department reported its first case of H5N1 in Texas, likely tied to cattle with the virus.

News announcing the first human case of novel avian influenza A(H5N1) in Texas emerged Monday, April 1, as an urgent warning. It wasn’t an April Fools’ Day joke.

Luis Z. Ostrosky, MD
Luis Z. Ostrosky, MD

“People don’t need to panic. This is not a pandemic right now,” said Luis Z. Ostrosky, MD, infectious disease expert at UT Physicians Infectious Diseases – Texas Medical Center. “This is just one of the first human cases in the United States.”

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) reported its first case of H5N1 in Texas. The patient fell ill after contact with dairy cows believed to have H5N1. The primary symptom was conjunctivitis (pink eye), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is the first time that avian influenza A(H5N1) has been detected in cattle in the United States.

Emerging strain

“Unfortunately for this strain, it was not a question of if, but when,” said Ostrosky, professor and vice chair for health care quality at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. He said it’s part of the natural history of strains that appear in the wild and slowly make their way into human populations.

Experts proactively follow these strains to remain vigilant.

“We’ve been monitoring very closely the growth of H5N1, which is a strain in avian populations – how it made it from the wild to commercial flocks, to wild mammals like seals, and to cattle,” Ostrosky said. “And now from cattle, it’s made the jump to humans.”

Ostrosky said avian influenza A(H5N1) doesn’t appear to be particularly harsh and is not very efficient in transmission between humans. Therefore, the risk to the general public is believed to be low. In other countries, transmission has occurred rarely between household members and co-workers who are in very close contact.

No concerns regarding dairy

The general public also should not be concerned with consuming milk or milk products, based on this strain found in cattle. Ostrosky has zero concern about drinking pasteurized milk because pasteurization kills the organisms. He said raw milk is the concern.

“We live in a time when it’s become kind of cool to drink unpasteurized milk, and there’s talk online about the benefits of raw milk,” Ostrosky said. “As infectious disease physicians, we are very concerned with this trend, because it can transmit multiple diseases from cattle to humans, including brucella, E. coli, and now flu.”

Get tested

For people who have contact with animals and develop flu-like symptoms (fever, fatigue, cough, sore throat, headaches), contact your physician so this is their consideration of potential diagnoses. Seek medical care and get tested. Ostrosky said there are treatments if a diagnosis is determined.

The FDA has approved a vaccine for H5N1 that is not yet available to the public. Ostrosky said it’s stockpiled in case of a pandemic situation.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.