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We Are Not Safe From Bird Flu as Long as Factory Farms Exist

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Factory Farming & Food Safety page.

 CNN reports that Cambodia is seeing a spike in the number of deaths due to the H5N1 strain of bird flu. In a related case, Mexico recently slaughtered more than 1 million chickens infected with the H7N3 strain of bird flu. Despite the increase in bird flu in Cambodia, H5N1 is currently not very contagious among humans (most people who contracted the virus were in direct contact with sick farmed animals), and H7N3 is not known to cause harm to humans.

In spite of our current low risk, it is just a matter of time before H5N1, H7N3 or another influenza strain evolves into a dangerous form that results in a pandemic. And the events in Mexico and Cambodia beg the question: Are we ever going to be safe from bird flu?

As long as we continue to treat animals raised for food poorly, the answer is a definite "no."

We are consuming more animals than ever before. Once viewed as a luxury, meat is now becoming a dietary staple for many due to a worldwide growth in urbanized populations and affluence. Today, more than 64 billion animals are raised and killed for food worldwide annually (1).

To meet this demand, the industry has chosen to sacrifice the space and well-being of animals in the name of efficiency. Farmed animals are treated as "production units" and are denied their most basic needs. The overwhelming majority of animals raised for food are housed in extremely filthy, overcrowded conditions without access to fresh air, sunlight, or room to move about normally. This demand-driven transformation of animal agriculture is so dramatic that it has been dubbed the "Livestock Revolution" (2).

The conditions on these farms greatly contribute to the creation of deadly pathogens, including influenza viruses. Here's how it works: Wild aquatic birds are the primordial source of all influenza A viruses -- the ones that have the potential to cause pandemics. However, people rarely become infected directly from aquatic birds. Usually, an intermediate host must be involved. This intermediate host provides the right biological setting for the virus to transform into something that can easily infect a human. And that's where chickens and other farmed animals come in.
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