Stopping Bird Flu Calls for Compassion and Common Sense
By Karen Davis, PhD
and Holly Cheever, DVM
This commentary ran 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?
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 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.