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Bird Flu Spreading to Humans Could Cause a Global Epidemic

The following is an excerpt from the March 2004 issue of Dr. Michael Greger's monthly nutrition newsletter. To subscribe, send a blank email to:

BIRD FLU: Meateaters Put the Entire World at Risk
by Michael Greger, M.D.
February 26, 2004

The deadliest plague in human history was the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed up to 50 million people around the world. Modern flu strains tend to spare young healthy adults, but every few decades a strain arises that can kill people in the prime of life. In 1918, more than a quarter of Americans fell ill.[1] What started for millions across the globe as a runny nose and a sore throat, ended days later with people bleeding from their ears and nostrils and into their lungs. The victims drowned in their own blood. Their corpses--tinted blue from suffocation--were 'stacked like cordwood" outside the morgues as cities ran out of coffins.[2]

Where did this disease come from? Brilliant medical detective work, which included digging up corpses discovered frozen in the Alaskan permafrost for tissue samples, recently pieced together the genetic makeup of the virus. The disease came from bird flu.

The 1918 virus probably jumped species in crowded world war I army camps in Europe where they were raised chickens for slaughter. That flu would go on to bury more people than the world war.[3] The army camp outbreaks started in 1917. It took a year before the virus had enough human victims to mutate inside of before it could explode upon the world. "That's what could happen in Asia ," noted one flu expert this week, "It could be another year before it really gets moving."[4]

We now know that bird flu is the original cause of all of these human influenza "type A" viruses. Although the viruses can affect a wide range of animals including pigs, horses and wild birds, the initial source seems to be domesticated fowl such as chickens and turkeys.[5]

Over the last few decades meat and egg consumption has exploded in the developing world, leading to industrial scale commercial chicken farming and mass animal transport, favoring the emergence and spread of influenza superstrains.[6] The World Animal Health Organization blames changes in the global poultry industry, such as shorter production cycles and greater animal densities, for the increased risk of spawning epidemics.[7] Even backyard farms in Asia have turned almost industrial, filling every square inch with chickens. "As soon as you have that many animals in one spot you are likely to get into trouble with disease," said Dr. Samuel Jutzi, director of animal production and health at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.[8]

The World Health Organization also blames the present bird flu outbreak on "intensive poultry production"[9]. As one infectious disease expert noted, "There are a whole lot of practices in animal husbandry that means we have got large numbers of animals all close together with practices to give often a very short-term gain that may not be sustainable in the long term, but may well have long-term consequences that are not known, or not thought through at the time."[10] The stress of intensive confinement alone on the birds' immune systems increases the risk that factory farms will become the breeding ground for the next global pandemic.[11]

According to a recent editorial in The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, "All human diseases to emerge in the past 20 years have had an animal source..."[12] For example, hepatitis B, a disease which now kills a million people every year, probably appeared upon the world stage thanks to people eating chimpanzee meat. Ebola, the virus that causes one's organs to dissolve and kills up to 90% of people infected within a week, is thought to have originally come from people eating gorilla meat. Of course the disease doesn't limit itself to killing just those that ate the flesh of their fellow primates. Once it's jumps species it can spread throughout the human population.

The AIDS virus has now infected 50 million people. Where did it come from? The leading theory is that human beings originally got it through "direct exposure to animal blood and secretions as a result of hunting, butchering, or other activities (such as consumption of uncooked contaminated meat)..." (a competing theory is that the AIDS virus was originally spread through vaccines manufactured using chimpanzee kidneys).[13]

Historically, tuberculosis and measles emerged when humans started herding cattle in large numbers. The SARS virus spread into the human population because people were raising civet cats for their flesh. Mad Cow disease is an other direct result of industrial practices and now threatens the safety of the world's blood supply.[14] Animal agriculture has become a public health hazard for more than those that consume the meat.

The World Health Organization has described the speed at which this new outbreak of bird flu in Asia has spread as "historically unprecedented."[15] And the human lethality of the strain is ferocious--killing 70% of people it infects.[16] The 1918 strain only killed 2.5% of it's victims.[17]

Although fifty million chickens are dead, only a few people have become infected, though. The fear is that the bird flu will spread to a pig or person already infected with a human strain of influenza. Once this happens, a deadly gene swap can take place in which the human transmissibility of the human flu virus combines with the lethality of the bird flu virus. The World Health Organization in a conference today reiterated that conditions are "ripe" for the emergence of just such a virus that could trigger the next global pandemic.[18]

No war, no plague, no famine has ever killed so many in so short a time as the 1918 influenza pandemic.[19] One scientist observed in 1918 that "civilization could have disappeared within a few more weeks." At that time, though, there were less than 2 billion people in the world and no mass international commercial air travel. Scientists today fear a global influenza pandemic could be many times worse even with modern medical advances.

According to The Lancet editorial, vaccination would not be a viable option due to the lethality of the strain, antiviral drugs are not effective enough, and, since influenza is more contagious than diseases like SARS, quarantine measures are unlikely to control a human outbreak. The editorial concludes, "In view of the mortality of human influenza associated with this strain, the prospect of a worldwide pandemic is massively frightening."[20]

Humanity's lust for flesh not only kills billions of animals every year directly, but threatens the health of our planet and may threaten our health in more ways than we know.

1 Kolata, G. Flu. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Gairoux, 1999. 2 Crosby, A.W. American's Forgotten Pandemic. New York: Cambrdige University Press, 1989. 3 Ibid. 4 Biotech Week February 25, 2004 5 American Journal of Nursing. 103(7):22. 6 Biotech Week February 25, 2004 7 Australian Financial Review January 31, 2004 Saturday 8 Biotech Week February 25, 2004 9 Australian Financial Review January 31, 2004 Saturday 10 Ibid. 11 Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 894:20-7, 1999 12 Lancet 363(9405):257. 13 Science. 287(5453):607-14 14 New York Times. January 28, 2004. 15 The Mercury (Australia) January 31, 2004 Saturday 16 22 out of the 32 infected human victims have died. 17 Kolata, G. Flu. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Gairoux, 1999. 18 Financial Times. February 26 2004 19 Crosby, A.W. American's Forgotten Pandemic. New York: Cambrdige University Press, 1989. 20 Lancet 363(9405):257.

"BIRD FLU: Meateaters Put the Entire World at Risk" is an excerpt from the March 2004 issue of Dr. Greger's monthly nutrition newsletter. To subscribe, send a blank email to:

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