Don’t risk lives for cheaper chicken

It is hoped that the direction history will take is away from raising birds by the billions under intensive confinement.

Attempts to mediate the impact of the next influenza pandemic are laudable, especially since the H5N1 virus carries such unprecedented human lethality. But where did this virus come from in the first place? The current dialogue surrounding avian influenza speaks of a potential H5N1 pandemic as if it were a natural phenomenon – like hurricanes or earthquakes – over which we couldn’t possibly hope to control. The reality, though, is that in a sense the next pandemic may be more of an unnatural disaster of our own making.

Over the past decade, outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in poultry have gone from a few snowflakes to an avalanche. The number of serious outbreaks in the past few years has far exceeded the total number of outbreaks recorded for the entire 20th century.

This increase in chicken outbreaks has gone hand in hand with increased transmission to humans. A decade ago, direct human infection with bird flu was essentially unheard of. Since H5N1 emerged in 1997, other chicken flu viruses – H9N2, H7N2, H7N7, and H7N3 – have infected people from Hong Kong to New York City. A bird flu outbreak in the Netherlands infected more than 1,000 people, with symptomatic poultry workers passing the disease to more than half of their household family members. What has changed in recent years that could account for these disturbing trends?

The emergence of H5N1 has been blamed on free-range flocks and wild birds, but people have kept chickens in their backyards for thousands of years and birds have been migrating for millions. Bird flu has been around forever – what turned bird flu into a killer?

A big shift in the ecology of avian influenza has been the intensification of the global poultry sector. Over the past few decades, meat and egg consumption has exploded in the developing world, leading to industrial-scale commercial chicken farming, which could be considered the “Perfect Storm” environment for the emergence and spread of new super strains of influenza.

China, the world’s biggest poultry producer, is increasingly following the Western model of cramming tens of thousands of animals into filthy football field-sized sheds to lie beak to beak in their own waste, a veritable breeding ground for disease. Evolutionary biologists believe these sorts of conditions may be the key to the emergence of hyper-virulent, so-called “predator-like” viruses like H5N1. This may explain the emergence of the 1918 flu virus out of the trenches in World War I. From the virus’s point of view, these same trench warfare conditions exist today in every industrial chicken and egg operation-confined, crowded, stressed, but by the billions, not just million.

The United Nations specifically calls on governments to fight what they call “factory-farming.” From a UN press release: “Governments, local authorities and international agencies need to take a greatly increased role in combating the role of factory farmingÖ (which combined with live bird markets) provide ideal conditions for the virus to spread and mutate into a more dangerous form.”

The University of Minnesota’s own esteemed Michael Osterholm described the potential of a human influenza pandemic of “even moderate impact” to “redirect world history as the Black Death redirected European history in the 14th century.”

It is hoped that the direction world history will take is away from raising birds by the billions under intensive confinement so as to potentially lower the risk of us ever being in this same precarious position in the future. It is not worth risking the lives of millions of people for the sake of cheaper chicken.

Michael Greger, M.D. is the Director of Public Healthand Animal Agriculture at The U.S. Humane Society.
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