Meat and the Avian Flu

Meat and the Avian Flu

Woman working at China chicken farm

China’s latest avian flu outbreak, H7N9, has led to at least 126 infections and 24 deaths, with one confirmed case crossing national borders to Taiwan. The World Health Organization has stated this flu strain is a “serious threat” and among the “most lethal so far.” Some are questioning if we have the ability to develop an adequate vaccine before widespread person to person transmission occurs. Scientists are still determining the source of the original mutant strain, but assert intensive poultry factory farm operations are likely to blame.

As global demand for animal products increases, many developing nations are turning to industrialized factory farming operations. Public health experts have repeatedly warned of the flu risks associated with industrialized animal agriculture. And almost one decade ago a joint consultation between the World Health Organization, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Organization for Animal Health concluded that the increased demand of animal protein and intensification of animal agriculture is a major risk factor for emerging zoonotic diseases. But with the latest bird flu strain added to the growing list of zoonotic flu outbreaks in recent years ( Swine Flu, H5N1 Bird Flu, SARS), one can’t help but wonder-has anyone been listening?

So why, exactly, do factory farms present a particular danger? To simplify the answer, unnaturally high concentrations of genetically similar animals within closely confined, stressful, and at times unhygienic, conditions create an environment that allows for rapid pathogenic mutation(1). Eventually a virus may arise that is capable of jumping species boundaries from farmed animals to humans, creating a potential zoonotic pandemic. To read more details of H7N9’s emergence, visit Brighter Green’s previous blog post.

To add to the risk, developing nation factory farms are increasingly being constructed near densely populated cities, exacerbating risk of animal to human transmission.

The risk of a pandemic flu outbreak is one more negative consequence that industrialized animal agriculture must be held accountable for. With each new rise in per capita animal protein consumption, with each new factory farm, and with each new animal- we are adding to that risk. To put into perspective, today China’s poultry population sits at about 4.6 billion. Essentially that’s 4.6 billion potential vectors for an emerging zoonotic disease. (And that’s only Avian zoonotic disease -this figure doesn’t include other species of farmed animals.) It seems world’s growing taste for meat and eggs has created a very precarious epidemiological risk that we can no longer afford to ignore.

(1) Greger, M. (2007). The Human/Animal Interface: Emergence and Resurgence of Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. Critical Reviews in Microbiology. 33:243-299.

Photo courtesy of Padmanaba01