Sunday, February 07, 2016

A New Bird Flu?


                                                 Comments due by Feb. 14, 2016

It was a gray, damp January afternoon a few years back when I visited the Jiangfeng wholesale poultry market on the outskirts of Guangzhou, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. With its bleak wire enclosures and grid of cement paths, the place had the feel of a neglected 1970s­ era urban zoo. And despite the comparatively narrow range of species there — chickens, geese, ducks, quails and partridges, mostly, with a smattering of rabbits and one large slumbering hog — it smelled like one, too. As I walked around, watched suspiciously by the market’s handsome young security guards, a slimy mix of bird droppings and decomposing feathers slowly crept up the heels of my clogs. Every few months, it seems, an invasive virus from a distant land attacks the Americas: dengue, chikungunya and, most recently, Zika. But the pathogens that frighten me most are novel strains of avian influenza. I’d come to see their birthplace. Highly virulent and easily transmissible, these viruses emerge from open­air poultry farms and markets of the kind that stretch across Asia. Thanks to rising demand for chicken and other poultry, they’ve been surfacing at an accelerated clip, causing nearly 150 percent more outbreaks in 2015 than in 2014. And in late 2014, one strain managed to cross the ocean that had previously prevented its spread into the Americas, significantly expanding its reach across the globe. Novel avian influenza viruses are mongrels, born when the influenza viruses that live harmlessly inside the bodies of wild ducks, geese and other waterfowl mix with those of domesticated animals like the ones at Jiangfeng, especially poultry but also pigs. It’s possible to squelch their emergence. One way is to protect domesticated animals from the excreta of waterfowl, which can spread infection. But no such protections are in effect at markets such as Jiangfeng, which, like the rest of southern China’s booming poultry industry, lies within the East Asian flyway, one of the world’s most important waterbird migration routes. The poultry enclosures are open to the air. Droppings from the birds in cages as well as the birds flying overhead coat the floor. Stony­faced women with shovels push the mess into reeking, shoulder ­height heaps of wet mush. Any virus that lurks in those piles can easily spread to the birds and the people who tend them. Up to 10 percent of poultry workers in Hong Kong, a study has found, have been exposed to bird flu. A fine dust of desiccated bird waste permeates the air. It settles on the leaves of the workers’ makeshift vegetable plots behind the cages and on the window panes of their nearby flats. These markets and the unique viral ecology they enable are not new, as Malik Peiris, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, points out. But “now the situation is very different,” he said. “This is being done on a much bigger scale than it was years ago.” As health­ conscious consumers in the West cut beef out of their diets and newly affluent Asians add more meat to theirs, demand for bird flesh has skyrocketed. Global poultry production has more than quadrupled since 1970. And nowhere has the taste for poultry risen faster than in Asia, where chicken farming expanded by nearly 4.5 percent a year from 2000 to 2012. China now consumes more chicken than the United States. Tyson Foods aims to double production in China. “We just can’t build the houses fast enough,” Donnie Smith, the company’s chief executive, said to The Wall Street Journal, referring to poultry production buildings, and “we’re going absolutely as fast as we know how to go.” It’s not just the growing scale of the poultry industry in Asia that increases the probability that new avian influenza viruses will emerge. It’s also the peculiar nature of the trade. About half of China’s poultry trade traffics in live birds. That’s because many Chinese consumers, wary of the safety of frozen meats, prefer to buy their chickens while they’re still clucking. This creates a wealth of opportunities for new viral strains to spread and adapt to human bodies. Rather than visiting the sterile frozen ­food aisles of grocery stores, shoppers crowd into poultry markets, exposing themselves to live birds and their viral­ laden waste. And to serve the markets, more birds travel from farms into towns and cities, broadcasting viruses along the way. Most novel strains of avian influenza cannot infect humans. But some can, including three currently circulating strains: H5N1, a mash­up of viruses from geese and quail; H7N9, an amalgam of viruses from ducks, migratory birds and chickens; and H10N8, the product of viruses from wild birds, ducks and chickens. These viruses kill roughly 30 percent to 60 percent of their reported human victims. None can spread efficiently from one person to another, for example through sneezes and coughs, yet. But, given the opportunity, they will continue to evolve. And if they fine­tune their transmissibility among humans, the result will almost certainly be the kind of pandemic that epidemiologists most fear — one that could sicken a billion, kill 165 million and cost the global economy up to $3 trillion. A majority of experts predicted, in a 2006 survey, that a pandemic would occur within two generations. That prediction is based, in part, on the  increasing number of novel strains of avian influenza and the accelerating speed of their emergence. It’s also based on history. The virus that caused the influenza pandemic of 2009 killed an estimated 200,000 people, hitting young people in the Americas hardest. It originated in birds. So did the 1918 flu, which killed 50 million, including an estimated 675,000 Americans. For years, experts considered the Americas comfortably isolated from the virulent avian influenza viruses hatched on distant Asian poultry farms and markets. “Being in North America,” said Carol Cardona, an avian disease expert at the University of Minnesota, “we weren’t bothered.” Some of the novel strains of avian influenza emerging from the Asian poultry trade can be picked up and spread far and wide by migratory birds. But the migratory routes of these birds don’t cross the oceans. Even as they spread H5N1 and other pathogens into dozens of countries in Europe, Asia and Africa, the Americas remained untouched. That changed in late 2014, when a highly virulent avian influenza from Asia infiltrated North America. Its prospects here differed from those in Asia. Relatively few people are regularly exposed to live poultry and their waste. And farmers protect their domesticated flocks from pathogens by screening and controlling ventilation in barns and by regularly disinfecting farm equipment. Remarkably, none of these safeguards arrested the virus’s inexorable spread. It was as if the virus “knew the weaknesses of each individual farm,” said Dr. Cardona, “and found that and exploited it.” Infected farms euthanized entire flocks by smothering them with carbon dioxide or firefighting foam. From December 2014 to last June, more than 48 million domesticated poultry in 21 states were slaughtered, the majority in waterfowl ­rich Minnesota and Iowa, in what the Department of Agriculture called the worst animal disease epidemic in United States history. By the time it ended, a 12­ foot ­wide ridge of bird carcasses from a single farm in Iowa stretched more than six miles. Nobody knows just how this virus migrated over the oceans protecting the New World. But it’s possible that another consequence of human appetites — climate change — played a role. While Asian and European birds don’t migrate into North America, they can pass on viruses to birds that do. That could happen in a place where millions of birds from both the Old World and New World are instinctively drawn every spring: the Arctic lands surrounding the Bering Strait, known as Beringia. In the past, New and Old World birds in Beringia visited numerous ponds spread out across the tundra. But with temperatures in the Arctic rising twice as fast as anywhere else, conditions are changing rapidly, shifting the distribution of creatures and their pathogens. Historically segregated species are coming into novel kinds of contact. As birds are forced to migrate earlier and farther, feeding at new times and in new places, they overlap with other bird species in unprecedented ways that pathogens can exploit. Some already have. In 2012, a parasitic roundworm normally found some 1,000 miles southeast turned up in birds in western Alaska. In 2013, birds in Alaska suffered their first epidemic of avian cholera, which typically infects birds in the lower 48 states. WHILE the precise conditions under which the virulent Asian­origin virus arrived in North America in 2014 remain murky, what’s known is this: Migratory birds picked up the virus from a poultry farm in Asia, carrying it with them into Siberia and Beringia for the breeding season. There, whether it was because of the new intimacy of the changed landscape, or because of something about the virus itself, the pathogen spread into other bird species, including those that would later head into North America, such as gyrfalcons and northern pintail ducks. By December 2014, they had brought the virus into British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, infecting wild and domesticated birds along the way and igniting the epidemic. If this strain had been one that could infect humans, a deadly and disruptive public health emergency would have ensued. Luckily, it was not. But there are more where it came from, at the growing interface between live poultry and humans on the other side of the Pacific. The workers at Jiangfeng, with their bare hands and tall boots, toil at its border. I watched them in the crowded enclosures as they lassoed birds around the neck with long, curved poles, stuffing them into plastic bins and loading them onto trucks. When a security guard caught me staring, I quickly walked away, footsteps muted by the membrane of bird waste encasing the soles of my shoes. Perhaps I could scrounge some bleach solution at my hotel with which to sterilize them, I thought to myself, although of course the birds whose lives and peregrinations are shaped by our appetites would not be so circumspect. As I padded toward the exit, a stream of vehicles crammed with fowl, and whatever viruses replicated inside their feathery bodies, steadily rumbled out of the market, bound for points unknown.

12 comments:

Christina Marciante said...

As I read these articles, it becomes more and more apparent that all environmental issues relate back to the increasing human population. It is interesting how culture plays a role in this epidemic. In Asian culture, they find it wrong to have frozen meat. If they had the chickens killed and frozen, there would probably be less outbreaks. None of these issues are simple. You can trace them back to a bunch of issues that caused the problem, but ultimately it all connects back to the human population. When there was a bird flu outbreak in America, they just killed off the birds that were infested. If America were a third- world country, the killing off of over a thousand birds would be devastating to the people who truly needed those birds as a source of food. If all the poor countries started reproducing birds for food purposes, these epidemics would probably be much worse. In this article it said that the flu couldn't be transmitted from human to human through coughing or sneezing, but there are so many diseases from other countries that get spread around the world because of the mass travelling people do. The mass travelling we do also causes a bunch of other environmental issues.

-Christina Marciante

Erika Anzalone said...

The interaction humans have in daily life in regards to disease and contamination are extensive. Poultry is not monitored and maintained in a proper manner and in turn, more disease spreads because of the horrible conditions. In order to control this, first humans have to set up a system of more organized poultry farms. Then they have to control all of the waste in relation to the amount of birds they have in the farm- this should be limited ( I know this means that there will also be less income because there are less birds to sell ) but it maintains cleanliness which helps in the containment and restricts transmission of diseases across the nation.

-Erika Anzalone

Anonymous said...

The way the birds are raises seems to have a need for some kind of renewed regulations to make it cleaner is my first thought after reading this article. With birds being such a huge part of human diet across the world it is important to have meat that is healthy for consumption. These out breaks have a major impact on the arear of the world that comes in contact with the virus. And the increasing population does not help. As well as some cultural practices, but it is understandable that tradition is important to many people. Over all I feel that there needs to be some kind of regulations about these birds are raised at a worldwide level to try and combat some of these issues.
-Andrew Ponticiello

Rowan Lanning said...

I find it extremely interesting that with the increased demand for meat in urban city centers, freezing and salting meat in an effort to help it keep better and have a more sanitary environment for the meat itself ends up creating an atmosphere where people are removed from where their animal products come from. However the opposite is true that while people in china and other countries where they prefer their animals alive for food, they sacrifice the cleanliness and sanitation in order to know where they're purchasing their meat in the first place. As Christina said, the whole deal all comes back down to human population. When our population is so great, and increasingly living in urban centers where space is not accessible, we end up having to sacrifice parts of ideal living. Culture determines what sacrifices we end up making - the chinese sacrifice health for awareness and cultural tradition, whereas the americans sacrifice the awareness and connection we have with our food for consistent sanitation (and even then our factory farms have similar sanitation problems that have lead to things like mad cow disease). Is there a way to trade off one or the other without sacrifice of these basic elements of food consumption? I don't know :/

Ralph Green said...

It's alarming and scary to read an article about how pathogens can be evolving and could reach us more easily than ever. What's redundant is how most problems relate back to human population growth. The supply and demand for domesticated bird meat is at a high which makes it easier for an epidemic to spread and happen. Sanitation is a big problem, every farm should be inspected so that they are not in the conditions as the farm in the article. We are fortunate to be able to kill off infected populations when epidemics happen because if we were LDC we would be devastated by those of a food supply. None the less we need stricter sanitation laws since you know we are eating those animals.

Kaitlynn Brady said...

My decision to leave meat behind more than a year ago was made due to circumstances such as these. The fact that humans have turned a basic necessity into a commodity should be frightening. The meat industry has been completely capitalized upon transforming its intention to provide people with good quality protein into a means of making a profit. The domino effect of our money hungry wallets are now becoming more and more apparent in the diseases it has created and now spread. I think its essential to look at these diseases as more than just another medication or vaccine the medicinal field can profit from. This should be taken as a reflection of how humans have created it and how a slight change in our dietary desires can not only prevent these sort of outbreaks, but also significantly reduce carbon emission.

-Kaitlynn Brady

Fatimah M. said...

While readings these articles, I find some interesting things about certain cultures. As stated inside the reading, "That’s because many Chinese consumers, wary of the safety of frozen meats, prefer to buy their chickens while they’re still clucking." If they weren't against buying pre-packaged food, then they wouldn't have so many outbreaks. It will then lead to less diseases being spread amongst the human race. It seems as if everything comes back to Human Population. When animals start getting diseases, that's when some people decide to become vegetarians. I understand how some people make that change, but you also need your protein and vitamins. However, it is scary how humans alter the lives of different animals in order to eat them for dinner.

Chase Harnett said...

I can only imagine the "farms" that are described in the article. The unregulated health and safety practices accompanied by cheap labor, seems to be the perfect storm to create a breeding ground for these viruses. I found it interesting that fifty percent of the consumers prefer to have their foul fowl delivered “still clucking”. I am and advocate for this kind of food consumption. The less processing the better I like to think. But, in this situation it lessens the gap between the bird’s viruses and the general public. I suppose frozen in a clean food isle is the better way to go. It is ironic however that the reason these consumers want their birds delivered live it to ensure cleanliness and freshness and it is precisely this practice that puts them at risk. Furthermore, the rate of expansion and growth in this bird industry is growing. Growing so fast that the corporations cant build bird housing fast enough to match the demand for poultry. It seems that this is yet another outcome of heavily populated areas and their never satisfied and never ending demand for more and more goods.

Chase Harnett

Johnny Lopez said...

This article shows the potential threats we face in today's society. It mentioned: climate change, overpopulation, unhealthy sanitation, over-producing of natural resources, and much more environmental issues. What really struck me was the different migration patterns birds are embarking on. The article stated, "while Asian and European birds don’t migrate into North America, they can pass on viruses to birds that do. That could happen in a place where millions of birds from both the Old World and New World are instinctively drawn every spring: the Arctic lands surrounding the Bering Strait, known as Beringia. In the past, New and Old World birds in Beringia visited numerous ponds spread out across the tundra. But with temperatures in the Arctic rising twice as fast as anywhere else, conditions are changing rapidly, shifting the distribution of creatures and their pathogens." I think it is becoming worrisome how all the environmental issues are interconnected with one another. I think the author is correct in fearing a mass epidemic of an avian flu. Unfortunately, I do not think medical intervention would be able to assist us quickly enough, especially not without losing innocent lives. In order to prevent such a tragedy, sanitation regulations must be enforced. Ideally, eating habits should change, but until that happens, cleanliness is mandatory. Till now, humans have been playing with "fire", and are now getting dangerously close to getting "burned".

Anthony Jones said...

Industrial agriculture accounts for 20% of all greenhouse that contribute to climate change.

This is a broken food system. A system which poisons our air, water, and soil, jeopardizing human health and the environment. When we fail to acknowledge the health of the planet, we risk the health of our own species and that of countless others. We are air, we are soil and we are water. We are Earth. From “dust to dust” and dirt to dirt, we come from dirt and to dirt we shall return. We are inextricably linked to this fragile planet and as such, we are indebted to her. What we do will always have repercussions. When we farm unsustainably, on agricultural model which encourages overpopulation, cramming chickens, cows and pigs into unclean spaces, we should expect viruses and disease to be born. This form of agriculture has been crafted out of a culture of convenience over quality. Why grow it when we can buy it? Now we depend a select few companies and corporations to feed us, serving us disease, poor nutrition, degraded health and an overburdened healthcare system. Food is no longer important to most people. Having long forfeited our intimate connection to the food we eat, we have crafted an environment in which bird flu, mad cow, salmonella and E.coli can easily find their way onto our plates.

THIS, is what food has become. But, we can turn this around if we grow what we eat, creating local food systems where we reconnect with food.

Ariana Pdlla said...

When I first glanced at this article I was immediately disgusted by the frightening image of a man injecting a helpless bird. After reading into this article I came to realize that this issue is more than just a “new bird flu”; but a problem that roots from the main issue of overpopulation. Overpopulation has caused our earth an incredibly high amount of issues. Why not add one more to the list? Due to a rapid increase in human population, the demand for chicken and other poultry is rising more and more everyday. This rise in demand does not nothing but promote an inflation of the issue. People need to start controlling and supervising the way that poultry is being handled. By overseeing this issue, less contamination will exist and diseases will decrease in being spread. The avian influenza is a threat to the entirety of the world. There are no borders in its path to spreading. People need to ensure that all countries, no matter what their position is, that they are prepared and protected.

SUET SZE AU said...

Written by SUET SZE AU

Bird flu has become a serious in recent decade. As population continuously grew and people became wealthier, the demand for poultry has escalated. China has a large poultry industry. Thanks to globalization, the poultry produced in China could effectively distribute to Asian regions or even American. The issue raised when there were virus with in those poultry and China didn’t make proper prevention towards the spread of bird flu. And the bird flu was not limited to Asia but also other parts of the world. The bird flu has caused many people died and we should solve this problem cautiously. Besides improving prevention toward the bird flu, maybe we should also consider the root cause- high demand of meat. If people can change their consumption preferences on meat, the risk of spreading bird flu can be largely reduced.