By NEAL BARNARD
Published on: 02/23/06
The signs are ominous. In the past month, 14 countries have reported outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza, or bird flu. The virus, which is claiming a growing number of human victims, has now been found in birds from France and Germany to India and Nigeria.
As a physician, I think it's time to admit that our current response, which combines a naïve faith in antiviral medications with sporadic culls of infected flocks, is not working. That approach did not save the 92 people already killed by the disease. And it won't protect the rest of us if H5N1 begins to spread easily among humans, which could result in a pandemic that kills millions.
In the United States, the poultry industry claims that bird flu does not pose a risk because our factory farms supposedly have better sanitation and containment procedures than farms elsewhere.
But bird flu has already struck here. In February 2004, an outbreak of H5N2, a related strain of the disease, was detected in a flock of Texas chickens. More than 16 outbreaks of H5 and H7 influenza have occurred among U.S. poultry since 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The H5N1 strain has not yet arrived, but it easily could.
These outbreaks were predictable. About 9 billion chickens a year are raised for food in the United States. Most live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, with up to 20,000 birds packed in a single shed.
These conditions explain why salmonella and campylobacter are commonly found on chicken products in stores. It's also why flocks are often dosed with massive quantities of antimicrobials. But such measures will not stop avian flu.
The threat will remain as long as chickens, ducks and turkeys are raised in dirty, overcrowded conditions. Like mad cow disease, bird flu is the result of profoundly irresponsible agricultural practices.
The solution is to dry up the reservoir — the chicken flocks where bird flu breeds. Consumers need not wait for industry or government to take action: They can simply stop eating chicken. Our hearts will enjoy a break from the cholesterol and saturated fat. And phasing out this irresponsible industry can prevent what could become one of the deadliest diseases the world has ever known.