If you confront other people who think bird flu has gone away as a concern or read news articles to that effect, consider this. In April of this year there were 45 countries reporting infections in their bird or poultry populations. Now, four months later, there are 55. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) continues to warn us that the virus is spreading throughout Asia, Africa and Europe.
The number of confirmed human cases now stands at 240, with 141 deaths. The true number is likely larger, although how much we don’t know. So far it is still small compared with the SARS outbreak of 2003, but like SARS, there is grave and plausible suspicion a devastating pandemic could occur. SARS is caused by a previously unknown virus, so we didn’t have much to go on as to its possible behavior. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the SARS outbreak ceased after infecting some 8000 people and killing about 800. In the case of avian influenza we have much experience with the virus and know its is capable of rapid worldwide spread and has at least once been the source of a global catastrophe (1918).
It seems unlikely at this juncture that the virus can be eradicated. When highly pathogenic (to birds) H5N1 first infected humans in 1997, in Hong Kong, it was hoped that a Draconian culling of poultry could contain and then eradicate it. Millions of birds were killed in a few short weeks in 1997 and for six years it seemed we had dodged a bullet. Then the virus came roaring back 2003 in southeast Asia (and we now know, China). While not visible in the six year period it was around. It spread rapidly in southeast Asia but seemed to be a regional problem until 2005 when it suddenly burst its regional shackles and spread to Indonesia (the world’s fourth most populous nation), the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Sporadic human cases have accompanied its spread in birds and the viruses host, environmental and ecological niches have also multiplied. Vigorous veterinary control measures have been put in place in some countries and little effective control in others.
FAO continues to advocate urgent investment in national veterinary services:
The Rome-based organisation said veterinary controls must be strengthened, particularly in developing countries, in a bid to limit the spread of H5N1 among domestic birds.
“We dont expect to eradicate the H5N1 virus from possible wild bird reservoirs but we can contain and control it fully in the poultry sector,” FAO`s chief veterinary officer Joseph Domenech said.
This “is the best insurance we have that it will not mutate into a virus that is easily transmissible among humans,” he continued.
“We need to find the weak links in the global effort to contain H5N1 and strengthen them.
“That means building up veterinary and laboratory services in the poorer countries of the world, where public services are hampered by a general lack of funds,” Domenech stressed. (Turkish Press)
I would strongly support the FAO position, although not for the reasons given. At this point it doesn’t seem probable we will be able to contain this virus in the poultry sector. Beyond the extreme difficulty of doing this, there is reasonable and plausible suspicion it has already escaped to other animals, which we don’t know as yet. So if H5N1 were the only argument for investing in animal health, we don’t think it is a very good one. But it isn’t the only argument. I can think of three others, two practical and one ethical.
On the practical end, most experts believe emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases of public health importance will be zoonotic diseases, that is, diseases of animals that spread to humans. SARS and influenza H5N1 are just two examples. The more veterinary and laboratory expertise and resources we have available to surveil, monitor and respond to diseases in animals the better equipped we will be to handle the next emerging infectious disease. In addition, animals provide most of the high quality protein for the human species. Protecting animal health also protects human nutrition, and a better nourished planet is a more productive and more peaceful one.
On the ethical end, surely there is some duty of care for the poultry and livestock that sustain us. Without having to agree with those who maintain animals have rights, most of us can at least go along with Peter Singer’s clarification that animals certainly have interests. Faced with treating animals humanely and inhumanely, other things being equal, few of us would be indifferent to the choice. Seeing to the health of animals is one such choice, with the benefit it has practical advantages as well.
Whatever the ultimate evolution of H5N1 as a public health problem, it is part of an even H5Nbigger problem of how we live with, live off of and treat the other creatures with whom our own fate is so intimately tied. The biggest problem with the FAO’s plea is that it is the kind of recommendation that makes so much sense and is so practical that it seems destined to be ignored.
Instead we are throwing hundreds of billions down rat holes like Iraq. Money down a rat hole is not an investment in animal health.