Bird flu is all over the Indian state of West Bengal and the country that borders it on the east, Bangladesh. The Ganges River flows through West Bengal, dividing in two, with one branch headed into Bangladesh. The Gangetic alluvium and delta region also has another unhappy claim to fame: it is the site of an enormous chronic poisoning from groundwater containing naturally occurring arsenic.
The mass poisoning that is occurring in West Bengal and Bangladesh is another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Drinking water is one of the most important resources for any community and the government with the aid and encouragement of international intergovernmental, non-profit and governmental aid organizations began to supply the poorest in the population with a source of groundwater via tubewells. Tens of millions of tubewells were sunk and there was success in reducing the heavy toll of waterborne disase. But in the 1980s it was discovered that almost half of the groundwater supplied in this way was heavily contaminated with natural arsenic. The toxic metal gets into foodstuffs grown in contaminated water used to irrigate crops. The exposed population is estimated to be in the many tens of millions. Thousands of cases of arsenic poisoning have already been recorded but they are likely only the tip of the iceberg. It is a genuine environmental catastrophe.
One question that occurred to me was whether there is any interaction between arsenic and bird flu. I don’t know that anyone has looked into this and I haven’t seen it discussed anywhere (virologists and poultry people don’t usually read the literature of environmental health and vice versa). But the relationship is plausible because arsenic is toxic to the immune system. In fact it is used to treat leukemia and multiple myeloma for this reason (these are cancers of immune system cells). Arsenic is able to induce programmed cell death (apoptosis) in immune cells. Some viral infections, like herpes zoster, can be reactivated after exposure to arsenic. Indeed there is a large scientific literature on effects of arsenic on the immune system.
The immune effects could possibly be on either poultry, humans, or both. Or not. But it is worth considering, given the dramatic prevalence of arsenic exposure in West Bengal and Bangladesh and the spreading bird flu virus in poultry there.