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News 162, Vegetarian Era

Avian Flu: Nature’s Wake-Up Call for Humanity

By the Florida News Group, USA
(Originally in English)

The potential spread of avian influenza (also known as avian flu or bird flu) is one of the most serious public health threats humankind has ever faced. The disease is contracted by humans through the butchering or eating of infected animals such as chickens or ducks.

How meat-eating is causing a potential bird flu pandemic

Influenza has a long association with the meat industry, with the first human flu viruses emerging in cities where animals were crowded together in pens and slaughtered. Since 1959, twenty-four outbreaks of deadly High Pathogenic Avian Influenza have occurred, all arising from pig and poultry farms, and in 1997 a global flu epidemic was narrowly avoided when Hong Kong destroyed its entire chicken population. In light of these developments, the World Health Organization (WHO) has set up a Global Influenza Surveillance Network that tracks new flu strains on pig and bird farms.

Scientists say that the current avian flu virus needs to undergo ten specific mutations to cause a global epidemic, and the ideal environment for such mutations is farms raising pigs, chickens and ducks. Pigs are susceptible to infection by both bird and human flu viruses. In fact, in past flu epidemics swine have served as “mixing vessels” for new mutations, which constantly pass between them and humans. In July 2005, for instance, a strain of pig-borne disease-causing viruses emerged in Sichuan Province, China, infecting hundreds of people and killing forty.

Scientists have traced the current bird flu virus to China’s Pearl River Delta region, an area with large numbers of pigs, chickens, ducks and other animals used for food. By one count, 134 species of animals were available for sale in the area’s markets, which are awash in virus-laden blood and feces. Live animals are crammed into boxes, denied food and water and often skinned and butchered alive. This highly stressful environment weakens the other animals’ immune systems, and the combination of sick animals of various types has allowed the virus to cross species many times to the point that it now affects some 75 species.

According to Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations and Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Coming Plague, as long as people remain at the end of a long food chain of animals, the avian flu virus will mutate in this fashion to “orders of magnitude more difficult to deal with.”

A history of catastrophes

Archaeologists studying animal bones have traced many diseases back to the confinement of animals, which began about 10,000 years ago. The foot bones of livestock from that period are deformed like those of confined animals, while the humans who kept them died of animal-borne diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox and flu. Non-human illnesses such as foot-and-mouth disease appeared at the same time, wiping out livestock on which people had become dependent for food, thereby causing human malnutrition, starvation and susceptibility to sickness. Thus, directly or indirectly, humankind’s attachment to meat over the centuries has brought about catastrophes worse than any war or natural disaster could ever wreak.

To this day, one in three people will die from infectious diseases, most of which are derived from animals, and three fourths of all emerging human illnesses are animal-derived. By contrast, Native Americans, who traditionally did not confine animals as did other races, were virtually free of infectious diseases before the arrival of Europeans. Subsequently, a series of European animal-derived illnesses quickly wiped out ninety percent of the native population of both American continents.

Overall, among the top ten causes of death in developing countries are diseases arising from animals, the foremost of these being AIDS. The HIV virus that causes AIDS first appeared in traders of monkey and chimpanzee meat, and HIV has now infected 65 million people and killed 25 million. Scientists have determined that a monkey virus called SIV jumped species between hunters and primates a minimum of seven times before becoming HIV, demonstrating that a large amount of virus transfer occurs due to hunting.

The cycle of violence

A common method of preventing avian flu is to kill chickens carrying the disease; thus, approximately 150 million fowl have been destroyed during the recent epidemic. A survey prepared for the UN found that typical means of slaughtering the birds included beating them with sticks and iron pipes, and stuffing them in plastic bags and then burying them alive in pits. In some cases, gasoline was poured into the pits and the animals burned alive before being buried. Carbon dioxide gas, which causes piercing, stabbing pain and slow death, has also been employed.

The deadly game

Besides chicken farming, another way that bird flu can spread to humans is through duck hunting. Ducks are the main carriers of bird flu in the wild and when hunters shoot ducks, carriers spread the virus to anything that makes contact with the carcass. Throughout history, humans have spread animal-borne diseases to livestock and other humans through hunting.

While bird hunting has been banned in many countries this year due to the potential for an avian flu epidemic, hunters are largely ignoring the bans. As a Lebanese hunting official explained, “Hunters may not believe the government and so don’t take the ban seriously. They don’t realize avian influenza has made hunting national health concern, and is no longer merely a social or economic activity.”

Bird flu is also spreading through the trade in exotic birds, some of which have been seized by officials as far away from their native lands as England. Also, officials have found infected fighting cocks being smuggled out of China, and according to David Morgan, head scientist for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), “You only need one specimen to get through the net to spread the disease.”

A brighter future is possible

As health administrators struggle to control outbreaks of avian flu, an effort that is costing the global economy billions of dollars and the lives of hundreds of millions of birds, one cannot help but wonder whether a more suitable solution can be found besides mass slaughter; namely, the vegetarian diet. As people buy meat in shops and supermarkets, perhaps they should ask themselves, “Is it worth risking a global epidemic for this piece of flesh?” And lest people conclude that a key law of nature is “kill or be killed,” they need only remember the dog, that model of domestication. Simply by sharing food and shelter with dogs, humans have turned a former enemy into a guide, protector and “best friend.” How much easier it would be to make friends with such placid animals as cows, pigs and chickens! Killing these animals for food is a primitive, uncivilized practice that endangers the health of all people on Earth. So let us hope that these more humane approaches to dealing with the avian influenza problem will be adopted soon.



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