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Day 140: Pigs & Birds Didn’t Cook Up this Flu

My world was bleak enough. Now the windowsills on my block are sprouting spiky metal strands, bird barriers that bristle in the sunlight. What’s the point? I prefer to keep a clear view of my former world. It’s bad enough that Sneeky claims the best window.

VICTIM OF A VERY HUMAN DISEASEWorse, New York is full of pigeon corpses. The birds are generally impervious to avian flu. Most are being poisoned. (Others were beaten to death.) Sick morons, who may or may not believe they are achieving something, have thrown millions of New Yorkers into panic by poisoning these scrappy birds. The carcasses are a genuine threat to our health whether or not the birds had flu. No one dares go near them.

I think I see a dead pigeon rotting on the fire escape across the street. Earlier I thought I could smell it, but an eastern breeze spared me.

Few wild birds would have gotten H5N1 if it hadn’t festered in chicken factories.

No Big Deal for Ducks

In East Asia, big chicken farms include lots of ducks—for millions of years the source of influenza viruses that had little effect on other species. As Greger points out in Bird Flu: A Virus Of Our Own Hatching, humans invited the flu to cross the species barrier when we domesticated ducks 4,500 years ago.

Most ducks can carry the virus without symptoms, shedding billions of infectious doses in days. As China expanded duck farming in recent centuries, it forged the reservoir from which most avian flu has been leaping to chickens, and then to people. It’s no coincidence that China has kicked off so many pandemics, not least the Black Death.

The most common transmission mode is the commercial shipping of diseased birds—as edibles or exotic pets—to distant locations. Then, when industrial poultry catch and ferment a virus, migrating birds can pick it up from one pond and drop it into another. The world’s big poultry factories are the equivalent of munitions depots that exchange bombs with passersby (which won’t surprise anyone who believes that swine flu was cooked up in gargantuan, unnatural pig factories). Curious? Read on.

Less than a century ago, the average American ate half a pound of chicken a year. (The Republican Party was really talking big when it boasted that it had given Americans “a chicken in every pot” in the 1920s.) Prices tumbled after Maurice Hilleman at Merck came up with a vaccine to counter a cancer-causing poultry virus known as Marek’s disease. Now we eat an average of a quarter pound a day. To turn this rare luxury into a staple, we created factories in which broilers grow so fast that their legs can’t keep pace. Some become too heavy to walk—not that there’s much space to move—and the weakest are trampled to death when their desperate mates flutter into a panic.

It’s instructive that when H5N1 started killing turkeys at a huge British establishment, no one noticed. As Ben Bradshaw—Britain’s animal welfare minister—put it, the death rates were “nothing out of the ordinary.”

In fact, flock fatalities are a welcome indicator. When a few chickens suffer heart attacks, growers know that nutrition is going to the edible parts instead of being wasted on organs the birds won’t need because they’ll never be functional creatures. Broilers subsist in piles of dung—immobile, unable to groom themselves, vulnerable to any pathogens that penetrate the big sheds. Egg-layers fare little better. Growers stuff them with cheap antibiotics. This helps train bacteria to resist our miracle medications, giving rise to superbugs that gobble our flesh.

A study in Emerging Infectious Diseases
found that 80% of raw chicken in stores in the southern Netherlands carried multi-resistant bacteria identical to those found in hospitals. While the Dutch consume very little antibiotic medication, their farmers dose them through poultry.

In the U.S., Consumer Reports found that 83% of the packaged chicken it tested in stores carried salmonella or campylobacter. The packaging itself teems with microbes. (Attention shoppers: Don’t touch your eyes or noses after comparing weights and prices!)

Avian Flu Subtypes Lined Up for Us

Bird flu is an even greater threat. Since 1999, at least four additional subtypes besides H5N1 have afflicted humans. Human beings are ‘immunologically naïve’ to at least 13 avian subtypes. From a menu of eight genes, flu sure knows how to dish up variety. In fact, some top scientists have suggested we view any influenza virus as a “gene team” that constantly trades with other varieties and other subtypes for new players that can strengthen it.

Even if H5N1 were to vanish tomorrow, we could soon find ourselves coping with an H7N7 pandemic; in 2003, that little bug killed a veterinarian and infected 1,000 poultry workers in the Netherlands. Another one, H7N2, infected four people in Wales in 2007. H5N2 caused the deaths of 17 million Pennsylvania chickens in 1983, turning its victims into what a researcher called “bloody Jell-O”; 23 years later, 77 people in Japan were found to carry antibodies to this “mild flu.” (How would I know how they got them? No one does.) In Hong Kong, meanwhile, they worry a lot about H9N2.

Never heard of those strains? That’s no accident. In 2002, as Greger explains, H6N2 popped up in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Instead of reporting the outbreak, growers packed sick chickens off to markets in trucks that spewed feathers and virus, infecting neighboring farms. They couldn’t wait to sell those tainted legs and eggs.

As a libertarian, I distrust state intervention in commerce. But it makes sense that businesses should clean up the mess they make and charge enough to make a profit doing so. Poultry farmers are operating like the mines and factories that long spewed toxins into our waterways and streets because they didn’t feel like paying to dispose of byproducts.

No one keeps tabs on the medical costs and losses in productivity that result. Heck, the way economic metrics are designed, deaths add to America’s gross domestic product by necessitating economic transactions— when undertakers, coffins, plots, and gravediggers are available.

So lay off the pigeons! Stand up for our free, feathered friends. The virus has already crossed over. H5N1 is now a human disease. We must protect ourselves from other people, not birds. (Masks, anyone?)

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