How concentrated animal feeding operations fuel pandemics

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic may be the worst in recent memory but another pandemic occurred just a decade ago. During 2009 and 2010, the world was stricken with H1NI, a novel virus hosted by pigs.

Originally termed swine flu, the novel virus was a new and ominous combination of five viruses: North American swine flu, North American avian flu, two swine flu viruses found in Asia and Europe and a human flu virus.

The viruses had undergone reassortment and swapped genes, creating a novel virus not previously identified in humans. Not only did no one have immunity or antibodies to the novel virus, experts said humans could both give and get H1N1 from pigs.

“Unlike the situation with birds and humans, we have a situation with pigs and humans where there’s a two-way street of exchange of viruses,” warned Nancy Cox, who served as director of the Influenza Division at the CDC during the H1NI pandemic.

Five months after its identification, H1N1 had spread to 43 countries according to the WHO which declared it a pandemic in June 2009. Between 151,700 and 575,400 people died worldwide according to the CDC.

An earlier bird flu scare was a dress rehearsal for H1N1

In 1997 a strain of avian or bird flu called H5N1 surfaced in Hong Kong and for eight years had much of the world fearing a pandemic. Like H1N1, the bird flu virus H5N1 was a novel pathogen not encountered before  and by 2004, it had spread to more than 50 countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Though there were cases where H5N1 was “transferred from birds to humans, in settings such as farms or open markets with live animal vending,” said researchers in the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology, H5N1 lacked the human-to-human transmission of H1N1. However, of those who got the virus as many as 66% died.

During the H5N1 pandemic scare hundreds of millions of birds were exterminated in inhumane ways in a vain attempts to stop the disease but new, unexposed animals introduced into the same, virus-laden environments perpetuated it. The disease remains endemic in several countries and a serious worldwide threat.

Bird viruses related to H5N1 such as H5N2, H5N7 and H5N8 have continued to rage through U.S. poultry CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) since 2015, with tens of millions of birds destroyed––12% of U.S. egg layers and 8% of turkeys in recent years.

Big Food succeeded in hiding the extent of the bird flu outbreaks on U.S. poultry CAFOs to avoid scaring people away from eating their products. “It doesn’t affect humans, just birds,” they declared even as CAFO operations across the country have been depopulated under the public’s radar. When a new U.S. bird flu outbreak occurred in 2020, the mainstream press barely mentioned it.

CAFOs are creating pandemics say experts

Prehistory is full of records of plagues and pandemics. In modern history we have seen the Asian flu pandemic of 1957, the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968 and the AIDS pandemic of 1981.

But, according to the Journal of Public Health policy, today’s pandemics are different, especially when it comes to flu viruses: “For centuries, the evolution of the influenza virus had remained relatively stable. In recent years, however, the virus has undergone an evolutionary surge, with new variants emerging rapidly. The intensive confinement of animals is shown to be a major contributor to this surge. Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1, first isolated in the Guangdong Province of China in 1996, is one of the most notable pathogens to appear recently…”

The crowding and stress of CAFOs, also called factory farms, are only part of what has changed in modern meat production. The other big change is the extent to which food animals are medicated and vaccinated. For example, Merck, a leader in both human and animal vaccines, markets over 30 vaccines for poultry diseases like fowl pox, turkey coryza, bursal disease, coccidiosis, laryngotracheitis, hemorrhagic enteritis, avian encephalomyelitis of course salmonella and E. coli. It also markets vaccines for cattle, pigs and even farmed fish.

According to a Science magazine article, titled “Chasing the Fickle Swine Flu,” vaccination is now routine in traditional animal farming.

“Another crucial change has been the recent wide-scale vaccination for swine influenza. In less than a decade, vaccination has become the norm for breeding sows.”

The big question that neither Big Food or Big Vax want to see the public ask is whether vaccinations are driving pandemics, not just because of crowding but because of the uniform immunity created by the animal bio-engineering behind CAFOs.

According to Science magazine: “Widespread vaccination may actually be selecting for new viral types. If vaccination develops populations with uniform immunity to certain virus genotypes, say H1N1 and H3N2, then other viral mutants would be favored.”

CAFO’s also spread pandemics through their unethical treatment of workers. According to Environmental Health Perspectives, protection of the 54,000 workers working on swine and poultry CAFOs during the H1N1 pandemic was “relatively small” and workers can unwittingly spread the virus.

“In a 2-year prospective study of 803 rural Iowans, published in Emerging Infectious Diseases in December 2007, he [Dr. Gray] found that CAFO workers were 50 times more likely to have elevated H1N1 antibodies than nonexposed controls. Equally important, their spouses were 25 times more likely to harbor these antibodies, reflecting how the viruses can jump from farm workers to their intimate contacts.

By July, the CDC had reported that 16,200 workers across 23 states had tested positive for the Covid 19 virus.

The worldwide danger of CAFOs has long been recognized says Dr. Michael Greger, a physician and internationally recognized public health: “The public health community has been warning about the risks posed by factory farms for years…in 2003, the American Public Health Association, the largest and oldest association of public health professionals in the world, called for a moratorium on factory farming. In 2005, the United Nations urged that ‘[g]overnments, local authorities and international agencies need to take a greatly increased role in combating the role of factory-farming,’ which, they said, combined with live animal markets, ‘provide ideal conditions for the [influenza] virus to spread and mutate into a more dangerous form.’”

Yet the continued creation of new viruses by CAFOs and animal vaccinations is not abating and promises more deadly pandemics. Worse, food producers seemed to have learned nothing from previous bird and swine flu pandemics.

Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.

Comments are closed.