Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bird Flu

In 2000 and 2001, during spring and summer, we were inundated with warnings about ‘West Nile Virus’ affecting crows and other birds. The local news reported numbers of unnamed human deaths—sometimes 7, other times 5 or 3, somewhere in a vague part of Long Island or New York City. I couldn’t help but question these reports; not of course that birds might be dying, but the hysteria which culminated in part of our county being sprayed with an offensive chemical, by helicopter. We were assured that the spraying was harmless to humans, yet were warned to stay indoors. Later there were reports of people with adverse reactions to the spraying. Then all was quiet.

This past year the bird flu (H5N1) scare was pervasive in Europe and by all accounts continuing in the Far East. Free range chickens in the European Union were been banned indoors by order of law, and a vaccine, Tamiflu, speedily developed by a drug manufacturer. It was the I-don’t-know-what’s-going-on talk of the day. Now summer has come and the birds are here but, suddenly, again, all is quiet. Again, I have no doubt birds sicken and die. But why?

An article appeared in ‘Das Goetheanum’ Swiss weekly newsletter, 19. May, 2006, by Michael Kalisch. The title translates as: How Fare the Birds? Here is a condensed review:

We have read about sick and dying birds in epidemic numbers in Asia and that there was an outbreak of bird flu in Turkey. In the European Union the virus was found in some wild birds and predatory animals, and even in some pets but with little or no outbreak. However the risk of a pandemic is assumed because the bird flu virus might mutate into a highly pathogenic version and, because a flu epidemic is overdue.

Birds have been prone to bird flu for many years. Since1997 app 180 people worldwide have contracted it. About half of those died. According to the World Health Organization well over 100 000 people die of regular flu each year. Bird flu assumes very close contact with infected animals. But to date no-one has observed an infection caused by a wild bird, and so far no tourist has contracted bird flu in any of the affected countries.

Migratory birds and ‘dirty’ small farms have been blamed for the spread of bird flu. However the pathways of bird flu from East to West have been found to follow trade routes. The virus type is the same in China as in Turkey, the location of the only significant outbreak outside Asia.

The migration theory doesn’t hold up. Countries such as Australia, visited by wild birds from Asian countries, show no cases of bird flu. Nigeria had an outbreak, outside migrating season, in one isolated chicken factory. Suspicion was that the factory imported chicks illegally froman affected country. In China wild birds carrying the virus died near a lake surrounded by industrial poultry farms which suggests that the birds were infected with a highly pathogenic variant, by the chickens, through the discarded excretions.

In Asia the poultry industry is undergoing a revolution with gigantic industrial growth, distributing beyond their borders, for example into Turkey. As in the seed industry, the old, local poultry breeds (optimally suited to their environment, resistant, rich taste) have been lost. A few ‘industrial’ breeds are distributed world wide by four Asian mega-companies intent on expansion. Whoever wishes to raise chickens must now buy everything from one of these concerns; livestock, feed, composted manure. (Laos stands out as a contrast. In that country 90% of poultry sold is raised on traditional small farms. As of March 2006 there were 45 bird flu cases in Laos, 42 of them occurring in one of the few poultry factories).

Thus we find not only the route but the probable origin of this highly virulent version of the bird flu virus. Mass, or ‘battery’ production of fowl not only weakens their resistance but allows for a rapid selection of already adapted ‘successful’ virus variants. Hens subjected to forced growth suffer the most, living in artificial light and ventilation, with bone weakness, ulcers, deformations and breathing difficulties, and with a constant uptake of antibiotics.

Is the solution mass culling and free range hens locked in covered sheds, or a ban on keeping poultry altogether? Or should the EU develop guidelines taking into consideration what chickens require to keep themselves, and us, healthy?

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