The Real Bird Flu Epidemic

Chickadee in Rochester

Every day I see new articles about a new outbreak of the H5N1 strain of Bird Flu virus. Outbreaks in Asia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe - constant concern about the possibility it may cross the Atlantic. In some parts of the world, paranoia about this virus has caused sales of poultry for food to plummet. Every new article comments on the danger that this virus may mutate to become communicable between humans.

Almost no article comments on the damage this virus can do, and has done, to wild bird populations and food production. Recently, National Geographic Magazine published an article which commented:

Even so, the disease is unlikely to cause a massive wave of extinctions, he said, although there are concerns about what would happen if the disease made its way into an endangered species.

This is a relief. Thankfully, wild bird populations frequently live in conditions which make it harder for disease to spread. That is, they don't live crowded into high-density housing, living amongst piles of their own feces, constantly in contact with each other. I hope that the virus doesn't get into an endangered species, but the realization is that for wild birds, this is just a normal disease.

If there is any one thing causing the mass slaughter which this bird flu has necessitated, it's the inhumane treatment and storage of our living food supply. Ironically, as this disease spreads, the most endangered flocks are the free-range birds. Since the massive commercial poultry farms can easily seal their flocks off from outside contact, they are more able to avoid the disease.

Of course, if a commercial farm detects the infection - they may need to destroy their entire stock.

How is this disease being spread?

A common fear is that the bird virus is being spread by wild birds into domestic bird populations. Ken Rosenberg, director of conservation science at Cornell University's ornithology laboratory, states: "I know of no documented cases of domestic birds picking up the disease from wild ones." In fact, it appears that the disease may not be exactly the same strain between domestic and wild birds.

The disease is being spread by humans. Not directly; not because humans are literally "carriers" for the disease - because humans engage in activities which allow the disease to spread. Traffic in smuggled exotic birds, live poultry, and pets can carry diseases into areas otherwise secured. The feces of infected birds used in fertilizer can also cause additional spread.

Whatever we do, human behaviors are the dominant contributor to the extensive damages and spread of this disease. In the short run, poultry farms dedicated to free range philosophies may be badly damaged. But I hope that large commercial farms may see that the damages they suffer are directly caused by their own practices.

Updated by Joe Dolson on 24 August, 2009

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