Cramming thousands of ducks and chickens into unsanitary pens is not only cruel, it provides the perfect breeding ground for deadly viruses

By Rochelle Regodon, Pacific News Service

HONG KONG – Feb. 22, 2005 – The outbreak of bird flu now sweeping through much of Asia was preventable.

Avian influenza in China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam has brought death to dozens of people, as well as hundreds of millions of ducks and chickens slaughtered in an effort to halt further spread of the disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control predict that this flu is poised to become the next pandemic, with the potential to kill as many as 7 million people. Health officials here in Hong Kong and throughout the world are weighing in on how best to deal with what could become a worldwide disaster.

This virus, in its many forms, can be devastating, but it is also sickeningly predictable. New influenza strains almost always originate in chickens, ducks and pigs living in great numbers close to people in southern China. Typically, flu spreads from ducks to humans, or from ducks to pigs to people. The virus often mutates, becoming more virulent as it jumps from one species to another.

The key to prevention lies in improved animal husbandry and farm hygiene. These animals usually live in crowded, inhumane conditions, crammed together with barely enough space to turn around. These farms are the perfect reservoirs for the spread of disease. (The abysmal factory farms in America are no better, with as many as 10,000 chickens cooped up in a single, large metal shed. But the widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed — up to 50 percent of all antibiotics produced in the United States are given to farmed animals — keeps many diseases at bay.)

Shigeru Omi, Western Pacific regional director of WHO, points out that the only way to reduce the threat of bird flu to humans is to change farming practices. “This means a thorough overhaul of animal husbandry practices, and the way animals are raised for food in the region,” Omi says. “I believe that anything less than that will only result in further threats to public health.” In China, where the deaths of farmed animals from various diseases cause a loss of $2.8 billion a year, the Ministry of Agriculture is trying to do this. The ministry is working to establish disease-free zones in five of China’s provinces, largely by teaching farmers how to improve sanitation and living conditions for animals.

But, as they say in America, this is a little like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. When health and agriculture officials around the world have known for so long how influenza spreads, why has it taken so long for this issue even to be discussed?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals advocates a vegetarian diet, for both health and ethical reasons. But the least we can do for ducks, geese, chickens and pigs here in Asia is to provide them with decent, sanitary places to live. Doing right by these animals could have saved many human lives and stopped the fear and death that now permeates the air in so many Asian countries.


PNS contributor and Hong Kong resident Rochelle Regodon, a native of the Philippines, is a campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

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