Bird Flu and You
Scientists are terrorists. That’s the word from Feedstuffs, the leading weekly trade paper for U.S. agribusiness. Responding to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report on Industrial Livestock Production and Global Health Risks, Feedstuffs published an editorial stating that “FAO claims to use scientists to generate its reports, but I wonder if those scientists don’t resemble a bearded guy living in a cave in Pakistan who wants the U.S. on its knees.”
This newsflash from the wonderful world of terror comes to you via Michael Greger’s October 2007 Pandemic Update, which reminded me that I need to talk to you about bird flu.
Bird flu is like climate change; you ought to know and be doing something about it whatever your primary sphere of concern. Like climate change, bird flu is a disaster that will destroy animals, people, communities, economies, and ecosystems. Like climate change, bird flu is the logical result of unchecked human aggression against the earth and other animals that will end up circling back to hurt the most vulnerable among humans. And, like climate change, bird flu is a disaster already in the making. Millions of birds have already suffered the ravages of death by flu or been killed (often by extremely painful means) to prevent its transmission. Despite such desperate measures to stop the flow of flu, the question, most flu experts agree, is not if but when the next global influenza pandemic among humans will hit.
“So what?” you might be thinking, “I get the flu every year. I don’t see why I should worry if a whole lot of people get it.” That’s because, if you’re under 89, you didn’t live through the last worldwide bout of bird flu. The virus that caused the 1918 influenza epidemic was in fact bird flu. That outbreak, as Michael Greger writes in his book Bird Flu, “killed more people in 25 weeks than AIDS has killed in 25 years.”
And that was a much less virulent strain of avian flu than the H5N1 virus that menaces us today! Like today’s bird flu, the influenza of 1918 caused the immune system to go crazy. The stronger the immune system, the stronger the reaction. Thus, while the winter ailment that we call flu is most dangerous to the elderly and others with weakened immune systems, bird flu killed and will kill the healthiest among us. That means that the strong, young people who usually handle emergency services and keep the economy going during a disaster are the ones most likely to die. As we have seen in countries ravaged by AIDS, economies and communities crumble when a significant proportion of working-age adults die or become too ill to work or to care for their children and elders.
That’s just one of many facts you need to know about bird flu, which has now not only spread from Asia into Europe via wild bird migration but hopped into West Africa via poultry. Right now, the virus is highly virulent but weakly transmissible. In other words, the mortality rate is very high for those who contract it but it is hard for them to pass it along to others, in part because they die so quickly. In the wild, the evolution of such a virulent virus would not lead to a pandemic because the affected birds could not infect many others before dying. But when birds are confined together on farms, all can easily be infected with the illness of one.
In addition, thanks to factory farming, in which thousands and even tens of thousands of birds may confined in a single building, the virus is mutating rapidly. As Virology professor John Oxford states, “The problem is one chicken can contain hundreds of thousands of strains of H5N1. Let’s say there are a billion chickens in Asia and 10% are infected — that’s a vast population of viruses, more than the entire human population of the planet.” With every mutation comes the chance of increased transmissibility.
You can keep pace with relevant events as they unfold by subscribing to Greger’s Pandemic Update, which you can do when you visit the website for his book, the full text of which is available online for free. But I’m actually going to suggest that, if you can, you buy the book, read the book, and then donate it to your local library, IndyMedia center, or other public outlet. Greger’s donating all of his proceeds to charity and I know that the publisher took a big risk in printing a hardcover book with thousands of references on a topic that people know they ought to know about but really don’t want to know about.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should reveal that I know the author of this book. Now affiliated with HSUS, Michael Greger used to be a rabble-rousing firebrand associated with Boston Ecofeminist Action. When I met him, he was crossing the country giving side-splittingly funny and incredibly detailed Power-Point presentations about the impact of trade globalization on animals. Here’s the dramatic intro to one of those presentations:
“463 arrests, 900 rubber bullets, and five thousand canisters of tear gas! Quebec City, April 2001. Tens of thousands gathered to protest the FTAA — the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the latest manifestation of corporate globalization. Yeah, but what the heck does that have to do with animals though? Everything.“
(To get the full flavor of that, imagine it read with almost hyperactive inflection. To learn why FTAA and other “free trade” agreements are bad for animals and the environment as well as people, visit Global Justice for Animals.)
Anybody who’s heard one of Michael Greger’s talks knows he has a way of making the most tedious facts interesting. He does that in this book too. But, while very accessible, the book is also rigorous. Favorable reviews have appeared in such prestigious scientific journals as Nature, Virology, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Such reviews tend to focus on the main theme of the book, which is that the coming flu pandemic is an emergent threat directly caused by human abuses of animals. Some reviewers have expressed concern not only for the potential human victims of bird flu but for its primary victims, the birds. For example, in Nature (which is the most prestigious multidisciplinary scientific journal), leading flu scientist John Oxford writes that “Greger focuses on the chicken industry. His descriptions of how awful it is make for tearful reading. I really mean this.”
Oxford also bemoans “chickens used as fodder, being scalded to death, chopped up alive or, worse, dying of H5N1. There can be no more unpleasant death than a neurological disease that kills a bird in 72 hours.” I certainly can’t remember another instance of a writer for a major scientific journal expressing empathy for chickens. That this book provoked that is a testament to its persuasive power.
Now, you might say that a book that condemns only factory farming, rather than all forms of “meat” production, doesn’t go far enough. And I did feel disappointed that the recommendations section, in which Greger was more free to express his opinions rather than citing carefully referenced evidence, doesn’t call for people to simply quit eating meat.
Certainly, evidence within the book itself argues for that recommendation. In the course of mapping the background of the current crisis, Greger details the long history of zoonoses (animal-based diseases) that have afflicted people due to our penchant for animal flesh. For example, HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) for example, is a mutation of Simian Immunodeficiency Virus that made the jump to humans due to the hunting and butchering of wild primates for “bush meat.” (That’s as far from factory farming as meat gets.) In my view, that section alone makes the book required reading.
I was also disappointed by Greger’s decision to cite animal research without at least including a footnote indicating his own ethical opposition to such research. I understand that, if he wanted the book to be taken seriously by virologists and reviewed in scholarly journals, he couldn’t simply ignore the published research on the H5N1 virus itself. I do think it would have been safe, however, to add a note explaining his views on such research as well as his reasons for citing it.
That objection notwithstanding, this book does further the general cause of animal advocacy in the course of intervening in a specific emergency. Historically, we’ve seen (e.g., in relation to homosexuality) that changing viewpoints of scientists both reflect and further progressive social change. It’s very good news that reviews of this book in natural science and public health journals have been highlighting both the human costs and inherent cruelty of the most common form of animal exploitation. Along with the upsurge in “animal studies” in various academic disciplines (sociology, cultural studies, etc. — I’ll be reviewing a couple of anthologies soon), this may presage a new willingness among scholars to actually think about the human-animal relations that feel so normal to most people.
“Okay,” you say, “but do I really have to read a whole book about bird flu?” Here’s a compromise: Read Chapter 1 (“1918″), which will make it real for you, plus all of Section II (“When Animal Viruses Attack”), which will give you a good grounding in the biology and history of zoonoses as well as all the evidence you need to argue that factory farming (rather than migrating free birds) is the source of the current emergency — but make sure that somebody in your community who’s responsible for agriculture, public health policy, or emergency preparedness reads (or at least gets a copy) of the whole thing. Or you could go one better, put the time into reading the whole book, and then send cogent summaries, along with the book or a link to the full text on the website, to relevant local and state authorities.
Like the more frequent and severe storms to come due to global warming, bird flu and other potential pandemics are foreseeable consequences of ongoing human exploitation of earth and animals. These unnatural natural disasters are sure to hurt the most vulnerable among us. We’ve seen what happens when communities and the governments that purport to represent them are unprepared for flood. Let’s not wait to see what happens when they are unprepared for flu.