By Karen Davis, PhD and Holly Cheever, DVM
This commentary appeared as a letter titled “Stopping Bird Flu Calls for Compassion” in Feedstuffs: The Weekly Newspaper for Agribusiness, Jan. 8, 2007.
Recent articles in Feedstuffs show the ongoing concern about the health risk to birds and humans presented by the avian flu virus H5NI, including a new strain circulating in parts of Asia. According to a National Academy of Sciences report cited in the Dec. 11, 2006 issue (“H5N1 entry path identified," page 3), avian flu will most likely be introduced to western countries through an infected poultry trade rather than from migrating birds.
As we watch the frightening drama unfold, many in the animal protection community are horrified by the mass killing of hundreds of millions of birds, primarily to protect raising chickens in conditions that have enabled avian flu viruses to mutate and spread in the first place.
Avian influenza viruses have lived harmlessly in the intestines of waterfowl for millennia. Shed in sparsely populated outdoor settings in the droppings of birds whose immune systems have evolved to accommodate them, these viruses are kept in check. Flu viruses are rapidly killed by sunlight and tend to dehydrate to death in the breeze. But industrialized poultry production practices have vastly increased the potential of these viruses to mutate into highly pathogenic strains, like the H5N2 virus that struck commercial chicken operations in Pennsylvania in 1983, and the H5NI and H7N3 viruses that struck Asia and Canada respectively in 2004.
While fear of a possible pandemic has created massive public health emergency plans in which people could be ordered to stay home to protect others from exposure and quarantines could be imposed, we ask: if it’s so obvious to health experts that close contact among humans could promote a pandemic, why do officials seem largely oblivious of the fact that intensive confinement of birds is the most probable cause of the rapid mutation and spread of the virus?
Health experts urge people to wash their hands almost compulsively, and to sneeze into their elbows instead of their hands, to prevent flu viruses from spreading. Preschoolers have been called “hotbeds of infection” for failing to cover their sneezes in the presence of other children.
Yet, lapses in human hygiene pale compared to the way billions of chickens, whose respiratory tracts are similar to humans’, are now being raised. Intensive confinement is the single most likely source of viral mutation and transmission among birds. Movement of birds, machinery, manure and workers from areas where poultry are tightly confined appears to be transporting the virus from place to place and perhaps from continent to continent.
If and when the H5N1 strain of avian influenza crosses our shores, animal protectionists will be asking why the poultry industry and U.S. government continue to support farming practices that favor the spread of disease in the form of foodborne illness and avian flu.
Like all contagious intestinal and respiratory infections, avian flu viruses are density-dependent pathogens with a penchant for darkness, dampness, dirt, and weakened immune systems – the perfect conditions in which to mutate and proliferate in birds and humans alike. – Karen Davis, PhD and Holly Cheever, DVM
Karen Davis, PhD is President of United Poultry Concerns. Holly Cheever, DVM is Vice President of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights.
Postscript: The view presented in our letter is challenged by a letter from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) suggesting that backyard flocks, commerce between wild and domestic birds, lack of total confinement (“biosecurity”), and poor veterinary services in regions of Southeast Asia may be more likely causes of highly pathogenic avian influenza than confinement practices in the U.S. and Europe.
In response it may be pointed out that traditional chicken farming and industrial production are similarly characterized by crowding, filth and disease as can be seen in recommendations cited in a UN News Service statement on Oct. 24, 2005: “Governments, local authorities and international agencies need to take a greatly increased role in combating the role of factory-farming, commerce in live poultry, and wildlife markets which provide ideal conditions for the virus to spread and mutate into a more dangerous form” (Task Force convened by the UN Environmental Programme Convention on Migratory Species).
And, “We are wasting valuable time pointing fingers at wild birds when we should be focusing on dealing with the root causes of this epidemic spread which are clearly to be found in rural poultry practices, the movement of domestic poultry, and farming methods which crowd huge numbers of animals into small spaces” (William Karesh, UN Task Force observer and director of Field Veterinary Programme of the Wildlife Conservation Society).
In January 2006, Juan Lubroth of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced: “It is possible that wild birds may introduce the virus, but it is through human activities of commerce and trade that the disease spreads” (quoted on page 18 in “Fowl play,” a report by the agricultural watchdog organization GRAIN: www.grain.org/go/birdflu).
Consider, for example, “Asia’s unique fish-farming technique” cited in Michael Greger’s book Bird Flu on pages 138-139: “Pig-hen-fish aquaculture involves perching battery cages of chickens directly over feeding troughs in pig pens which in turn are positioned above fish ponds. The pigs eat the bird droppings and then defecate into the ponds. Depending on the species of fish, the pig- excrement is then eaten directly by the fish or acts as fertilizer for aquatic plant fish food. The pond water can then be piped back up for pig and chicken drinking water.”
GRAIN summarizes the ecology of infectious diseases: “It is in crowded and confined industrial poultry operations that bird flu, like other diseases, rapidly evolves and amplifies” (p. 8).
Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching by Michael Greger, MD (2006).
FOWL! Bird Flu: It’s Not What You Think by Sherri J. Tenpenny, MD (2006).
“Fowl play: The poultry industry’s central role in the bird flu crisis” by GRAIN (Feb 2006). www.grain.org/go/birdflu.
“Inside a Live Poultry Market,” 11-min. DVD/VHS by United Poultry Concerns ($10).
“UN task forces battle misconceptions of avian flu, mount Indonesian campaign,” UN (United Nations) News Service, 24 Oct 2005.
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150