Sunday, February 28, 2016
As the Zika virus grabs headlines, we can see nature’s Malthusian containment strategy at work. There are seven plus billion folks on our planet, which has clearly been uncomfortable with population explosion for well over a century. Man has not been particular good for most of the other species or even for its own kind. Wars have posited man as embracing a containment system for a species that has no senior predators. None of it is very pretty, and with global climate change, we are clearly having to watch the migration of disease-carrying insects into our ever warmer states, slithering a concern over, for now anyway, a rise in dengue fever outbreaks. Just one example.
Investigative journalist, Sonja Shah, has expanded her curiosity of corporate power to a focus on the deadly explosion of recent epidemics and pandemics. Her book, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, is scary reading. Recently, she wrote for the New York Times (February 5th) to drill down on one particular disease trend that is currently not at the top of medical headlines: avian influenza. It’s a category of disease, once unleashed, that often spreads easily and rapidly, often taking millions to their grave. Even the strains that travel slowly with more effort seem to kill with less mercy.
Viruses and bacteria are among nature’s most rapidly evolving and adapting creations. Nature’s inherent push to all life forms to change to survive and grow – or die – is nowhere more evident than in the world of such organisms. And man’s own ignorant agricultural practices, mixing with changing climate patterns, has most certainly accelerated the process.
Normally, a disease that attacks one species is ill-suited to take down other species. But given the correct environment, germs can slowly learn how to attack obvious neighbors. This natural proclivity is accelerated when concentrations of different species are raised for agricultural purposes in concentrated and filthy environments. Shah noted how many avian influenzas emanated from Asia… and asked “why?” She began a journey of exploration that took her into some pretty unhealthful farms and “live food” markets.
Shah writes: “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…
“Highly virulent and easily transmissible, these viruses emerge from open-air 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. Stony-faced 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.”
Temperature change is optimizing the petri dish for viral expansion. Further, consumption patterns – how we like to buy food – can amplify the risks. Americans love the antiseptic meat counters, with lots of individually-wrapped selections of meat, fish and poultry, sometimes frozen. Not so too many Asians who are obsessed with “fresh.” “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 mash-up 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 fine-tune 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.” Shah in the NY Times.
What this means for the rest of us is that there are some immigrants that we cannot stop with a wall, killers that make even ISIS look like piker. We can stop agricultural imports, but it doesn’t take more than a few travelers – even American citizens traveling overseas – with latent symptoms to carry the malevolence forward. New strains of unchecked insects flowing northward with climate change add to the risks.
In short, we need more government research to create stoppers to these travelers of death, but Congress prefers to cut that research budget because our taxes are “too high” (fact: we are in the bottom one third of countries as to percentage of GDP paid as taxes) or we wish to privatize research, even though there is no comparable motivation in the private sector to foot that bill. We are smart enough to create solutions with leaders who have deprioritized the supporting preventative measures. When the strains do hit, it may well be too little, too late. Growth, not medical health, environmental safety or human kindness, is Congress’ mantra… and it literally can kill way too many of us.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if we do not know about the risks, we cannot raise our voices to manage such risks to save even our own lives.