Avian Influenza Update March 6, 2007

Richard HorvitzAug 3, '18

Avian Influenza – Then and Now

Having just attended an excellent seminar sponsored by the S.P.C.A. Wildlife Care Center in Fort Lauderdale (954-524-4302) titled “Pandemic Influenza Preparedness in South Florida,” I felt compelled to write about some interesting facts regarding the transmission of diseases from animals to humans. As well, I will also give you an update of the H5N1 Virus that has been plaguing the news and countries like China and Indonesia, and the entire world except for the Americas (for now).


First of all, there are quite a few major diseases that have started in animals, and ended up contaminating humans. These are all called Zoonotic Pathogens. For instance, Goats were the original source of Tuberculosis, Cattle was the source of Measles, Pigs-Whooping cough, Horses-the common cold, and, ducks-Influenza.

Brief History of Influenza

The first documented outbreak of Avian Influenza was described as a Fowl Plague in Italy in 1878. It had an incubation period of 3-14 days, caused severe respiratory distress, and resulted in a huge drop in egg production.

The last major Influenza, H1N1, started in the US on 9/11/1918. It is thought that the Armed Forces serving in Europe, in deplorable conditions, actually brought the virus back with them. Extremely close quarters resulting in poor sanitation conditions are thought to have been the one factor that allowed the H1N1 virus to attack and spread so rapidly among our Armed Forces. In 25 weeks, the disease had caused 25% of all Americans to get sick, and the fatality rate was extremely high. But then, for some unknown reason, it stopped.

Some think that the disease had infected everyone susceptible, and simply died out. There is some of the virus left, and studies are currently being performed to learn more about the H1N1 virus, and for the exact reason as to why it did finally stop. From 1918 to 1945 there were outbreaks of various diseases, then there was a mysterious lull for 30 years. In fact, in the mid sixties, famous doctors declared that the war on diseases had been won, and that there was no reason to research stronger and newer antibiotics.

Age of Emerging Plagues

Then, in 1975, seemingly out of nowhere, new viruses starting appearing all over the world – AIDS, new Influenzas, Horrible Flues, Legionnaires Disease, Mad Cow, to name a few. In fact, the era beginning in 1975 is referred to as the “ Age of Emerging Plagues.” The question is, why all of the sudden were horrible new diseases infecting humans?

According to Dr. Michael Greger, a speaker at the event and author of “Bird Flu – A Virus of Our Own Hatching,” (which I highly recommend), one of the biggest risk factors of increasing Zoonotic pathogens is the increasing demand for animal protein. This increasing demand for chickens, eggs, and dairy products puts a lot of pressure on the companies who now manage the industrial production of these sources of protein, i.e., how to raise bigger, fatter chickens in less time with less money. In other words, these animals, which require intensive breeding programs in order to satisfy the demand, are being raised in conditions that will ultimately adversely affect our health, in more than one way.

New Math - Jam ‘em together + feed ‘em antibiotics and other animals = H5N1

We have drastically changed the way we raise animals during this new period of industrialization of poultry and pig production. Chickens produced by this new type of industrial production are now raised in deplorable conditions. Many egg layers’ feet never touch the ground, and chickens for eating are forced to live on cold, hard concrete floors with absolutely no room to move except into the chicken beside them. In China, they store chickens, jammed together, in open wire bottom cages, jammed with chickens, in stacks of five or six. They are given eight times the amount of antibiotics than the entire human population takes so that the production rates can be kept high.

These factories now provide ideal conditions for new viruses. Prior to this industrialization of production, the H/N virus mutations would follow a life cycle as follows: Ducks would get sick, who in turn would affect chickens in their outdoor flock, where the disease mutates. The disease would run its natural limit in nature for death, that is, since the chickens were not living on top of one another, small numbers of infected chickens would die off, and with them the virus would die off. Never once has this virus arisen from outdoor flocks.

But things have changed. Now, it goes something like this – an infected duck gets into an industrial production facility, which then infects the chickens. Since the chickens can not go run off and die in a corner, they RAPIDLY infect all other birds around them. Humans who work in these giant production facilities, with little or no air circulation, breath in infected air from millions of enclosed chickens, and, poof – the virus jumps species.

Changing Patterns

Industrial production has changed the pattern of the disease. Before industrial production, there was an innocuous circle of the virus going from Shore birds to Waterfowl. Poultry would become infected in small numbers, and they would in turn infect small numbers of pigs. In fact, pigs act as intermediary host, or “mixing vessel,” for many diseases and pass diseases to both humans and poultry. (But that is another discussion, one which I would argue that pigs present a viral risk to humans far greater than viruses spread by poultry). Therefore, the disease goes from harmless to deadly in an enclosed environment of industrial production.

Also, in industrial production, there are several other factors which increase disease. One, there is no sunlight for the chicken – sunlight destroys viruses. Second, there are no bio security measures in these production facilities. Third, they are raised on uncovered concrete floors, which are cold and cause the chickens to get sick and also forces them to step in other birds’ feces. (There are studies which show a significant reduction in death and disease by simply putting a layer of hay on top of the concrete!) Fourth, already mentioned, they are fed massive quantities of antibiotics, in particular Cipro. And fifth, they are turning herbivores into carnivores, so if they feed diseased animals to healthy animals, disease mutations are quite likely to occur (i.e., Mad Cow).

Fortunately, the H5N1 virus is very bad at spreading to people. Unfortunately, it is 10 times more deadly than the 1918 pandemic.

Dr. Gary Butcher at the College of Medicine, University of Florida, feels strongly that the virus will not mutate to allow human-to-human transmissions. Thus far, there have only been Bird-to-human transmissions outside family clusters who work intimately with poultry. He feels that since H-type viruses not jumped species in the past, nor have they caused many deaths in the past, that they will not cause these problems in the future. Even though he does not believe this country will ever have a case of H5N1, he believes the major risks of spreading the disease are planes and the illegal pet trade. Dr. Julie Gauthier, USDA Veterinary Medical officer, added that there are also risks in the so-called live bird markets such as Botanicas, which provide birds and other animals for sacrifice to followers of Santaria.

So now what?

The Department of Agriculture has increased their testing of poultry flocks and live bird markets in Florida, which is great, especially since their budget has been slashed by the federal government. But in a decision I could not disagree with more, the USDA/APHIS only allows CITES 1 birds to be vaccinated. CITES 1 birds are the most endangered birds on the planet. By not allowing testing of the vaccine on CITES 2 and 3 birds, the USDA is unnecessarily putting these rare birds in jeopardy-who wants to risk their Hyacinth macaw to see if this vaccine will kill the bird instead of save it?

After hearing all the horrible methods used to breed chickens, I believe one huge way to help out is to only eat free range and/or organically raised chickens, or, if you choose, simply become a vegetarian. The less industrialized poultry and meats we eat, the less they will produce.

Other informational sources are: USDA, USGS, WHO, OIE, OSHA, AZA, http://myfwc.com/bird , www.mobiusPortal.com/AvianFlu/ViewPort_AF.asp

COPYRIGHT 2007 RICHARD HORVITZ. All rights reserved.


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