Dr. Michael Greger’s book, Bird Flu, is both fascinating and spooky. Many people are aware of the Black Death, which hit in 1347. Far fewer know anything about the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed more people in one year than the bubonic plague killed in 100 years. For some reason, our culture has suppressed the memory of this recent horror.
Back in 1918, millions of humans, mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, experienced muscle aches and pains for a few days. Then their lungs filled with blood, they turned purple, bled from the ears, nose, and/or eyes, and died a few hours later. It was hard to tell whites from Negroes. Some called it the Purple Death.
Within a year, up to 100 million died. The virus ran out of targets. You were either resistant or dead. This was the H1N1 virus, and it infected half of humankind. It was highly contagious, but only five percent of those infected died. The only place that the pandemic missed was the island of American Samoa, a US Navy base, which cut all contact with the outside world for 18 months, into 1920.
For millions of years, the influenza virus existed only in wild ducks, and it didn’t make them sick. When humans domesticated ducks, the birds were raised in farmyards in close company with other domesticated animals. These unnatural living conditions made it easier for pathogens to spread from species to species, and they did just that. It was almost inevitable that humans would become vulnerable to them.
A number of epidemic diseases emerged in species that tend to herd or flock together, and some of these were domesticated by humans. Goats and cattle gave us tuberculosis, which kills millions of people each year. Measles and smallpox came from cows. Typhoid is from chickens. Whooping cough is from pigs. There are too many to list here. “Entire ancient civilizations fell prey to diseases birthed in the barnyard.”
Imagine what life would be like if we had never enslaved our animal relatives. When Columbus arrived in the New World, the Native Americans had few domesticated herd animals. They had no resistance to Old World diseases, and up to 95 percent of them died. “Why didn’t Native American diseases wipe out the landing Europeans? Because there essentially weren’t any epidemic diseases.” We often blame disease on the filth and crowding of city living, but Mexico City was one of the biggest cities in the world in 1492. Epidemic diseases were largely an unintended consequence of enslaving animals.
In 1997, the new H5N1 virus appeared in Hong Kong, and it was far more deadly than the H1N1 of 1918. It killed an astonishing 50 percent of those it infected, but it was not highly contagious — yet. Health experts had a panic attack, because flu viruses constantly mutate. When/if the super-catastrophic mutant eventually appears, it will take six to eight months to create a vaccine. By the time the vaccine is mass-produced, the pandemic will be over.
The avian flu outbreak in Hong Kong was quashed by exterminating every chicken in the region. But four years later, it moved from ducks to chickens once again. It also spread into migratory waterfowl. It kills humans and chickens, but it is harmless to the wild birds that move from continent to continent. The cat is out of the bag. Ducks crap in a pond, chickens drink the water and die, the dead chickens are fed to pigs, and the swine get the flu. Pet cats, and tigers and leopards in zoos die when fed infected chicken.
We were able to wipe out smallpox because it existed only in humans. The flu virus now exists in a number of species, and the guts of highly mobile waterfowl provide a widely dispersed reservoir of H5N1. It is now “virtually impossible to eradicate.” All it takes to wipe out thousands of confined chickens is a virus brought in by a mouse that has stepped in duck poop.
In 1928, the average American only consumed a half pound of chicken per year, because it was expensive. Today, it’s cheap, and we eat 90 pounds a year. Nine billion chickens are slaughtered in the US each year (45 billion in the world). If we deliberately set out to greatly encourage the possibility of a catastrophic influenza pandemic, we would raise of billions of chickens in high-density confinement, like we are now.
We would also slaughter and process the chickens the way we are now. Super-efficient mechanized systems frequently puncture intestines, causing fecal contamination of the meat. Then, the contamination is spread to uncontaminated carcasses in the soaking bath, where they absorb water (“fecal soup”) for an hour to make the meat heavier ($). “At the end of the line, the birds are no cleaner than if they had been dipped in a toilet.” Greger says, “As long as there is poultry, there will be pandemics. It may be us or them.” Our massive appetite for cheap chicken could trigger a pandemic that sweeps away a billion people.
Some believe that raising chickens outdoors is safe, but there were no factory farms in 1918. Any day the H5N1 virus could mutate into a highly-lethal form that excels at human-to-human transmission. It could occur in someone’s backyard, but it is far more likely to happen in a poultry confinement facility.
Poultry corporations are concerned about disease because it’s a threat to profits. Exterminating infected flocks is bad for business. China and Thailand have a reputation for keeping disease outbreaks secret. When H5N1 hit Turkey, and the government ordered the destruction all turkeys, the farmers opposed the authorities with pitchforks and axes. The editor of a poultry industry journal clearly stated his priorities: “I'm not as worried about the U.S. human population dying from bird flu as I am that there will be no chicken to eat.” Who could disagree?
Greger provides 19 pages of tips for surviving a flu pandemic. Wear goggles, gloves, and a facemask (masks offer minimal protection). Stay away from crowds. Don’t breathe near coughers and sneezers. Avoid contact with commonly touched surfaces like doorknobs, handrails, and so on. Don’t shake hands. Stay home. If you don’t have antiviral drugs, the primary treatments are fluids, rest, prayer, and good luck. Maintain a several week supply of water, non-perishable food, cash, and ammunition. Do not trust officials and experts who proclaim that everything is OK. Be prepared for civil unrest.
Greger is not a wacko. He is the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the US, and an MD. Virology magazine reviewed his book favorably. His views are shared with world leaders in public health. By 2005, the experts were very worried that a colossal flu pandemic was just weeks or months away. The sky was falling, and humankind was essentially a helpless deer in the headlights. Greger’s 2006 book was written with a mixture of urgency and paranoia. For a long discussion on public health, it’s exciting and unforgettable.
As I write, it’s six years later, and the anticipated disaster has yet to arrive. The H5N1 threat is not gone. A catastrophic mutation may have happened five minutes ago. Or it might happen in 30 years. Or brilliant gene-splicers might succeed in creating 500-pound transgenic chickens that nothing can kill.
I just checked the website of the World Health Organization (WHO). The first H1N1 pandemic in this century ran from April 2009 to January 2010, and spread to 19 nations. About 70,000 were hospitalized, and 2,500 died. On 7 June 2012, WHO issued a global alert on an H5N1 outbreak in Egypt, with 168 cases and 60 deaths. On 6 July 2012 a global alert was issued on an H5N1 outbreak in Indonesia, with 190 cases and 158 deaths.
Greger, Michael, MD, Bird Flu — A Virus of Our Own Hatching, Lantern Books, New York, 2006.