Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bird Flu Pandemic : Are We Hatching Our Own Destruction?

A story from JAMA about the excellent book by Michael Greger, Bird Flu: A Virus Of Our Own Hatching, focuses on one of its more disturbing conclusions about the rapid spread of H5N1 and how our industrialized poultry farming practices are complicit in the repeated outbreaks :

Greger, Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States, discusses how human mistreatment of animals has actually backfired, with factory farming making livestock more susceptible to disease. He explains how modern livestock production facilitates the transmission and evolution of avian influenza and argues convincingly that the right environment for a virus such as H5N1 to thrive now exists.

The message is that pandemics are not born but rather are man-made—and that there is a price to pay for the modern poultry industry, in which fowl are raised in closed, stressful, unhealthy facilities, facilitating mutation and dissemination of the bird flu virus. Greger writes that "[It] may take a pandemic with a virus like H5N1 before the world realizes the true cost of cheap chicken."

There remains room for hope. As Greger states in the Introduction, "[if] changes in human behaviour can cause new plagues, changes in human behaviour may prevent them in the future." A radical change from factory farming to less intensive methods including free-range farming is needed, especially in the poultry industry, in which "humanity must shift toward raising poultry in smaller flocks, under less stressful, less crowded and more hygienic conditions, with outdoor access."

The JAMA story also highlights a few startling facts and estimates from US Centres For Disease Control And Prevention data : a normal flu season some 200 000 individuals in the United States are hospitalized and 38 000 die of influenza, mostly elderly persons, with annual direct medical costs and lost productivity calculated at $12 billion.

However, these figures pale before the catastrophe implied by a severe influenza pandemic. The CDC predicts that a medium-level epidemic would affect a third of the US population, hospitalize 734 000, and kill almost 210 000.

With failure to produce an effective vaccine and with a virus untouched by anti-influenza drugs, an epidemic of the H5N1 avian influenza via person-to-person transmission could wreak havoc. With a probable 80 million disease episodes, a 20% mortality rate would result in 16 million deaths. The human tragedy and economic upheaval would be unprecedented.

Read The Full Story Here

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